But even with Harden scoring 17 points and handing out six assists during the Clippers’ 111-97 loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the storyline turned into L.A. coach Tyronn Lue pulling his starters late in the game.
With his team down 16 points in the fourth quarter, Lue called a timeout with 4 minutes and 25 seconds left.
When play resumed, Harden, Russell Westbrook (17 points), Kawhi Leonard (18) and Paul George (10), the Clippers’ Big Four, were all on the bench.
Harden played in his first NBA game since May, when he played for the 76ers in a Game 7 they lost to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
On Monday night there was bad news for the Clippers when backup center Mason Plumlee was carried off the court by members of the team’s medical staff during the third quarter after a collision with Julius Randle. Randle was chasing down a loose ball when he ran into Plumlee’s left leg, sending him to the court in pain.
The Clippers later announced that Plumlee had a left knee sprain and was not going to return.
The very first play Harden made in the first quarter was a display of his play-making ability, a nice bounce pass to center Ivica Zubac, who was fouled on the play in the paint.
Harden threw two assists later in the first, a bounce pass to Zubac for a basket and a pass to Westbrook for a three-pointer.
It wasn’t until the start of the second quarter that Harden looked for his own offense, his first shot as a Clipper getting blocked by Donte DiVincenzo.
But Harden was undeterred. He connected on his next four shots, an eight-footer off a pump fake, a 15-footer off an another fake, a 25-foot three-pointer and a 21-foot jumper.