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After a slow start, how James Harden is making his fit with the Los Angeles Clippers work

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Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Initially, James Harden’s proclamation signified an overly inflated view of himself after fielding criticism for his ball-dominant style and his hasty exits from Houston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

“I’m not a system player,” Harden said. “I am a system.”

Over 3½ months since uttering those words during his introductory press conference with the Los Angeles Clippers, Harden had simply offered matter-of-fact commentary on how he would actually  play since then.

The Clippers (36-17) enter the post NBA All-Star break with the Western Conference’s third-best record, and plenty of it has hinged on Harden becoming the engine to ignite the team’s system.

Harden has averaged his fewest points (17.5) and shot attempts per game (11.4) since his third and final year in 2011-12 with Oklahoma City (16.8 points on 10.1 shots). That signifies, however, his willingness to include Kawhi Leonard (24.1 points on 17.1 shots per game), Paul George (22.5 points on 17.2 shots) and Russell Westbrook (11.4 points on 9.9 shots). Harden has posted 8.4 assists per game partly because the Clippers have three other dominant scorers and partly because he is not the sole playmaker. Harden has averaged a career-high in 3-point shooting (42.1) partly because of more efficient looks.

“I’m somebody that can have that dialogue with me and understand and move forward and figure out and make adjustments on the fly through the course of games,” Harden said during his introductory press conference. “That’s all I care about. It’s not about me scoring the basketball or scoring 34 points a night. I’ve done that already.”

It initially appeared Harden wouldn’t back up his words. The Clippers lost their first five games with Harden for various reasons. The Clippers played at a slow pace. They struggled with figuring out the offensive dynamic among their four stars. Harden and Westbrook struggled with sharing ball-handling duties.

Changes for James Harden after team meeting

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Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

That prompted Westbrook to volunteer to come off the bench, a role he had mixed success with during his 1½ seasons with the Lakers. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue then held a meeting in which he proclaimed Harden to be the primary ballhandler. He pushed for Harden to play more aggressively, while telling his other stars to excel with working off the ball. That left Harden with the freedom to determine when to shoot and when to pass.

“I leave it up to him,” Lue said. “I like when he’s aggressive, coming off the screens and taking his 3s and getting to the basket. He’s going to make the right play. We just can’t force him into taking bad shots or step-back 3s the whole game. He knows we have a lot of talent on this team, and a lot of guys that can score the basketball.”

Following that meeting, the Clippers then instantly became a different team. They won five of their next eight games. Then they reeled off a nine-game winning streak. They then strung together one five-game winning streak and two other four-game winning streaks.

The common denominator? Harden has mostly become the best version of himself. He has recorded 12 double doubles and one triple double. He has scored at least 20 points in 20 games. He has logged at least 10 assists in 17 games. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Harden plays on five of the Clippers’ seven most productive five-man lineups.

To accelerate his learning curve, Harden has often spent practices going over plays with teammates both on the court and through game footage. He has carried over the same team-first mindset in games.

“My job for this team is to touch the paint and get the shot, make the shot and make the game a lot easier for teammates,” Harden said. “Whether I have my step-back going or getting to the paint, I’m going to make a play for a teammate.”

James Harden steps up his defense

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Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

To the Clippers’ surprise, Harden has also made plays on defense.

According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Harden held Stephen Curry (40%), Mikal Bridges (37.5%), Brandon Ingram (37.5%) and De’Aaron Fox (20%) to low shooting numbers. Harden also ranks fourth on the team in deflections (2.0), fourth in steals (1.2) and fifth in contested shots per game (4.7). Granted, the Clippers are ranked 13th out of 30 NBA teams in defensive rating (114.3), the number of points allowed per 100 possessions. The same tracking data also shows that Harden struggled with containing RJ Barrett (70%), Aaron Gordon (60%) and Luka Doncic (60%).

Regardless, the Clippers have become more encouraged with Harden’s defensive buy-in, including his communication, help and awareness with team schemes. The Clippers have not become vulnerable because of Harden’s defensive shortcomings.

“A lot of effort,” Lue said. “We don’t expect James to be a stopper. We just expect him to be in the right place as far as team defense, but then taking the one-on-one challenge. He’s been really good.”

Harden didn’t exactly cement this kind of reputation during his previous stops in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Those around him considered that unfair. Harden logged double-digit assist efforts with Brooklyn (10.55) and Philadelphia (10.6). Harden co-existed just fine with Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but eventually soured amid the team’s inconsistent availability. Harden meshed well with Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, but soured on Doc Rivers’ offensive system and Daryl Morey’s refusal to grant a max contract that he believed was initially promised.

Since then, Harden has proven he simply needed to be in a better environment to perform at his highest.

“It’s not just scoring and not just facilitating,” Harden said. “It’s defending and getting stops, finding ways to impact the game because in the postseason, things aren’t going to be pretty. So for us, it’s about finding other ways to win a game.”

So far Harden has done just that, giving the Clippers long-term optimism he can continue to do so when the stakes become higher.

Mark Medina is an NBA insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on XInstagramFacebook and Threads.

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