Harden finished with 37 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists as the Nets won a fifth consecutive game on the road, despite missing Kevin Durant again.
Harden’s offensive heroics were overshadowed by his defensive contribution. Specifically, the offensive foul that the eight-time All Star drew from Kawhi Leonard to seal the game for Brooklyn.
Down by two points and with 11 seconds left, the Clippers inbounded the ball to Leonard, who drove past Harden and tied the game at 110-110 with a simple layup. The referees, however, had a different view and penalized the Clippers star for an offensive foul after Harden rather theatrically hit the floor.
While Leonard stretched his left arm to make his way past Harden, the Nets guard appeared to hold him as he took a step towards the lane.
The Clippers may have challenged, had they not used their only challenge on a similar call against Patrick Beverley, which was unsuccessful.
“You know, my take from it is if we gonna pretty much play bull ball at the end of the game, let both sides play it,” said Leonard—in response to the only question he took in the post-game press conference before leaving the media room.
“But they didn’t call it, so good defense. I got grabbed early but, like I said, no call, so great defense.”
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue was more philosophical. “I mean, they called it [offensive foul] so there’s nothing you can do about it now,” he said.
“I’m not a big complain guy but some guy said he had his arm before Kawhi was able to push off and he said Harden grabbed his—I don’t know because I didn’t look at it. To me the game’s over and nothing you can do about it, so it is what it is.”
While Lue remained calm, the referees’ decision drew scathing criticism on social media.
“What a terrible call on Kawhi. That was not even close to a push-off foul,” tweeted Fox Sports 1 host Skip Bayless.
“That was an and-one foul on Harden with a free throw to win the game. Clippers should’ve won that game.”
Harden, Bayless added later, “gets more calls than any player ever.”
NBA analyst Nate Duncan struck a similar tone. “That’s an absolutely miserable call on Kawhi,” he wrote.
“Kawhi already has him beat there, Harden fouls him first, has no choice but to flop, and refs bail him out.”
Elsewhere on social media, Harden’s move prompted the usual flurry of memes.
The controversial call took the spotlight away from another superb performance by Harden, who recorded his second double-double with at least 35 points in the last three games. He now has 77 35-point double-doubles in his career, one short of LeBron James’ record among active players.
Since moving to Brooklyn in a blockbuster trade last month, Harden has thrived as a facilitator on offense while continuing to be a prolific scorer. The three-time NBA scoring leader is averaging 25.5 points, 11.2 assists and 8.8 rebounds per game this month, compared with 21.6 points, 11.1 assists and 6.7 rebounds in his last five games for the Houston Rockets.
The Nets have now defeated Western Conference teams in eight consecutive games and improved Brooklyn’s record to 20-12, 0.5 behind Eastern Conference leaders the Philadelphia 76ers.