The last few years have been challenging for James Harden. He has not been the same MVP-level player since leaving the Houston Rockets in 2021, and Harden has taken a backseat to other NBA All-Stars. Still, the 34-year-old has not given up on his abilities with the Los Angeles Clippers, despite putting up the worst regular-season numbers of his career since he was the sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Without Kawhi Leonard against the Dallas Mavericks in the Clippers' first game of the 2024 NBA Playoffs, it was Harden who reminded the NBA world who he can be.

Entering the playoffs, Harden had recorded just two 20-point games over his last 16 contests. March 1 against the Washington Wizards marked the last time The Beard made at least six triples in a game. This changed in Game 1 of the Clippers' first playoff series versus Dallas, who have rapidly become their newest rival.

Granted, everyone besides Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving struggled offensively, but the Clippers dominated Game 1 against the Mavericks from start to finish. With Leonard on the sidelines due to his ongoing knee problems, Paul George, Ivica Zubac, Terance Mann, and Russell Westbrook all contributed in different ways. But it was Harden who truly won this game for the Clippers, a game that may just be looked back on as the battle in which the 10-time All-Star rekindled his old flame.

James Harden's success in Game 1 vs. Mavericks

Los Angeles Clippers guard James Harden (1) signals after a 3-point basket over Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (11) in the first half at Arena.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

When the Clippers traded for James Harden at the start of the 2023-24 season, they did so with one goal in mind:

Compete for a championship.

Los Angeles has never been to the NBA Finals, and they only recently made their first Western Conference Finals appearance in 2021. Owner Steve Ballmer has invested billions into his franchise in terms of marketing, team payroll, and the brand-new Intuit Dome in Inglewood, California. Trading for Harden was a move that gave the Clippers the third star they needed alongside George and Leonard. While he definitely had his fair share of struggles during the regular season in terms of trying to figure out his role alongside other All-Stars, Harden is no stranger to big moments in the postseason.

This is the 15th straight season in which Harden is playing playoff basketball, the longest active streak in the league. He may not have a championship, but the three-time scoring champion never blinks on the offensive end of the floor. This resulted in him logging 28 points on 6-of-11 shooting from deep and eight assists in the team's 109-97 Game 1 victory over Dallas. For Harden, this win and performance were symbolic of his ability to lead the Clippers, regardless of whether Kawhi was on the floor or not.

“I can score with the best of them. I still can score with the best of them,” Harden firmly told reporters after the win, via ClutchPoints' Tomer Azarly. “My role for this team is just to generate really good shots or making guys jobs easier and when my number is called, I can score the basketball.

“Obviously, Kawhi is out, so my playmaking and value is going to go up a little bit more. And I took advantage of it.”

Whether it is being his team's primary facilitator as a passer or taking advantage of his scoring opportunities, Harden still has moments where he looks like one of the most dominant scorers in the league at 34 years old. Although his role has changed drastically with the Clippers compared to when he was “the guy” with the Rockets, Harden's confidence remains high.

It is hard to claim that this was the biggest playoff game of Harden's career, but it may just be the most important in terms of what it means moving forward. There is no telling how long Leonard will be out of the lineup. At this time, very little has been said about his knee injury, and his availability against the Mavs in this critical first-round series remains uncertain.

With the pressure of the franchise falling on George's shoulders, many have forgotten about Harden's potential. Even though the 28 points he scored in Game 1 were his most since early in the month of March, Harden sent a clear message to Dallas and the rest of the league that he is going to be hunting his shots and opportunities when he is able to. This is the player the Clippers envisioned when they made their trade with the Philadelphia 76ers at the start of the season, and this is why Harden's big performance in Game 1 has shifted the tide of this series.

What role James Harden holds in Clippers' playoff run

Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George (13, left) and forward Kawhi Leonard (2, center) and guard James Harden (1, right) watch the game from the bench during the third quarter against the Utah Jazz at Arena.
Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi is the Clippers' best player; there is no arguing that. Then there is George, who is more than capable of being this team's alpha on either end of the court. Harden is that third star on the team who is supposed to help fill in the gaps, sacrificing his own personal production for the greater good of the team. Although this may not always be the role he wants to hold, Harden has embraced this challenge with the Clippers.

It is moments like Game 1 against the Mavericks where Harden's sacrifice is recognized and he is able to remind everyone of the player he is capable of being. Aside from being in the final year of his contract and wanting to secure another lucrative deal, Harden is at the point in his career where he wants to help lead a team to a championship, especially since this may be his last chance to do so.

While he may want to be the team's top scoring option, Harden is at peace with the idea of taking advantage of the moment as it presents itself to him, something he discussed prior to the start of the Clippers' series against the Mavs.

“Of course I want to play well individually, and then I want our team to play well. So I think it's my job as one of the leaders on this team is to make sure our guys are fulfilling, you know, their potential and maximizing what they bring to our team to the best of their ability game by game,” Harden stated. “You know, so that's conversations with, obviously, Whi [Kawhi Leonard] and PG [Paul George]. We know what to expect out of them, you know what I mean? But as far as the other guys, making sure we're all on the same page, you know TMann [Terance Mann], Norman [Norman Powell], AC [Amir Coffey], because those guys are going to help us win and get where we want to go.

“I think that's my job as one of the leaders on this team.”

Winning Game 1 against the Mavericks is a huge deal for Harden and the Clippers. In addition to defending their home floor to begin this series, the Clippers have also given Dallas something to think about regarding when Leonard will be back. Teams know what to expect from Leonard and George on a nightly basis, but Harden is the wild card for this team. If he gets going on offense and can string together multiple games while shooting a high percentage from three-point range, the Clippers will be unstoppable because of how great they are on the defensive side of the court.

Harden holds a unique role for the Clippers in the sense that he is the guy who will make the difference in them competing for a championship. Most teams that make a deep run into the playoffs have at least two All-Star players. In the Clippers' case, they have three stars, with Harden having the capability to run the show on offense. A 28-point performance with six made threes is a friendly reminder that the old James Harden, the one from the Rockets, still exists. This Game 1 victory over the Mavericks may just be the turning point for Harden to rediscover who he is.