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Harden dazzles sellout SSC crowd with 37 points, leads Rockets past Clippers, 109-96

NBA superstar James Harden dazzled a sellout Stan Sheriff Center crowd of about 10,000 Thursday night with 37 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in just three periods of action to lead the Houston Rockets past the Los Angeles Clippers, 109-96, in entertaining preseason action.

Harden, a unanimous All-NBA First Team selection, played 28-plus minutes and put on a steady and spectacular show filled with many flashes of his seemingly effortless brilliance.

Barely 80 seconds into the game, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Harden darted through the left side of the lane, took off for a layup, somehow double-pumped in mid-air while waiting for leaping defenders to descend, then tossed up a vertical shot that climbed three feet above the rim before dropping straight down through the net.

Two minutes later, Harden drove down the opposite side of the lane and casually tossed a perfect backdoor alley-oop pass to high-flying Clint Capella, who caught it in mid-air stride and slammed it through the hoop.

Harden finished the opening quarter with 12 points and two assists, then later closed out the half with another display of his many talents.

Teasing defender Rodney McGruder with some quick between-the-legs dribbles on the right wing, Harden took one of his trademark jab steps and then stepped back and swished a fadeaway rainbow 3-pointer from about 25 feet out while also being fouled by McGruder on the left (shooting) elbow.

After sinking the free throw to complete a rare four-point play, Harden then proceeded to cleanly pick Amir Coffey after the ensuing inbounds pass, was fouled while driving to the basket and sank two more free throws with 9.8 seconds remaining to put Houston ahead, 57-40, at halftime.

Harden finished the half with 20 points and six assists.

One of several Clippers assigned to guard Harden was rookie Terance Mann, a second-round 2019 draft pick out of Florida State.

“Oh yeah, it was cool,” Mann said after the game, when asked what is was like to defend Harden. “It’s pretty difficult, you never know what he’s going to do. He really likes that step-back, and he really likes driving left, so you don’t know what’s coming. It was definitely a great experience, especially during preseason, so it’s not a real game (that counts). It’s a good learning experience.”

After jumping some rope and chatting with boxing legend Floyd Mayweather (seated courtside) during halftime warm-ups, Harden provided more lessons in the third period, swishing two additional deep 3-pointers from the right wing and capping his night with a traditional three-point play on a driving “hoop-and-harm” layup to give the Rockets a comfortable 89-65 lead entering the fourth quarter.

Despite not playing in the final period, it was more than a night’s work for Harden: 37 points, seven boards, seven assists and two steals. He scored 17 points from the free throw line alone, on 20 attempts.

“It’s not the show we wanted, with Harden (scoring 37 points), but it’s still great for the fans,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “To bring a team in like Houston … Unfortunately two of our key guys (Paul George and Kawhi Leonard) couldn’t play (due to rest/rehabilitation), but I was really happy with the Rockets that they played their guys, other than (Russell) Westbrook. They played James a lot, which was great for the fans. And honestly, it was great for us as well.”

Chris Clemons added 15 points and Ben McLemore contributed 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Rockets, who rested Westbrook due to rehabilitation.

Montreal Harrell led the Clippers with 17 points, Lou Williams added 13 points and McGruder finished with 12 points.

The Clippers, training in Honolulu for the third straight year, will face the Shanghai Sharks at the SSC at 1 p.m. Sunday.

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(Photos courtesy Brandon Flores / www.brandonfloresphotography.com)

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