Harden enjoys happy return to Houston
Nets' MVP candidate posts eighth triple-double vs. Rockets
James Harden’s return to Houston Wednesday night wasn’t much different than most of his first 22 games in a Brooklyn uniform.
But it had to feel a touch sweeter for the former Rocket, even if he personally begged to differ.
“For me, once I get on that court, it’s just trying to win,” Harden said after posting his eighth triple-double and spearheading the Nets to a 132-114 triumph over his ex-teammates in front of 3,615 fans at the Toyota Center.
Brooklyn’s Most Valuable Player candidate and the NBA leader in assists finished with 29 points, 10 boards and 14 helpers while the COVID-limited crowd gave him a mixture of cheers and boos throughout the evening.
None of that meant much to the former three-time scoring champion, who spent eight-plus seasons with the Rockets trying to guide them to their first NBA title since 1995.
All he cared about Wednesday was getting another “W” for the Nets (24-13), who will enter this weekend’s All-Star break on a tear thanks to the recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Month.
“I’m not really worried about anything else. That was my feeling,” Harden said of facing his ex-teammates and a crowd that spent most of the previous decade worshipping him.
“Win the game and do whatever it takes and do what you’ve been doing,” he added. “Wasn’t trying to show off, wasn’t trying to do anything out of the ordinary that I hadn’t been doing.”
What he’s been doing is making the Nets a serious contender for their first-ever NBA title.
Brooklyn is 17-7 since Harden’s arrival and has won 10 of its last 11 games despite extended absences by fellow superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant during that stretch.
While Durant sat out his ninth straight game with a left hamstring strain, Irving scored 24 points, Bruce Brown added 17 and second-year center Nic Claxton had 16 for the Nets (24-13), who will hit the break with a 24-13 record, leaving them one-half game behind conference-leading Philadelphia.
“We’re building a team,” said Nets rookie head coach Steve Nash. “We’re defining roles and identity at both ends and the team is bonding and there’s a great environment and atmosphere forming. So that’s the review of the first half for me in a nutshell.”
After forcing his way out of Houston, which is in the midst of a brutal 13-game losing streak, Harden came to Brooklyn with great expectations and many questions surrounding his acquisition.
Could he fit in with Durant and Irving?
Could the three share the basketball enough to avoid anyone feeling underserved?
Would he sacrifice his prodigious scoring for more ball distribution and a greater committment on the defensive end?
The answer has been a resounding yes on all counts, pushing Harden toward the front of the MVP argument.
“So far, so good. Everything that I signed up for,” Harden said of his time with the Nets. “Top to bottom, it’s been great. … Now it’s time to get some rest, take care of your body and be ready to go.”
First, Harden, Irving and perhaps Durant will head to Atlanta for this weekend’s All-Star Game and festivities.
But what comes after will hold far greater meeting for the Nets as they continue to pursue title No. 1 behind their Big Three.
“Second half is gonna be huge for us in the sense of how fast we can get off to a great start,” said Harden, who will be back in Brooklyn on March 11 for the Nets’ first game after the break vs. Boston at Downtown’s Barclays Center.
“Everybody goes through the same thing,” he went on. “There’s no excuses, and we’re not here to make any.”
Harden certainly hasn’t had to explain away many, if any, bad performances since becoming Brooklyn’s All-Star point forward.
And he definitely wasn’t going to get into anything with the Houston fans or media following his triumphant return.
Even if his coach knew Harden had a bit of an extra edge going into the game.
“You could tell it meant something to him. You know, this place is special to him. Houston means a lot to him – the city, the organization and what he accomplished here with this team,” Nash noted.
“I know it was a big game for him. I was proud of him for the way he handled it.”
NOTHING BUT NET: The struggling Rockets announced earlier this week that they will eventually retire Harden’s No. 13 jersey. “Hopefully I did something right,” the ex-Rocket said of the honor. “Obviously I came up short of a championship, but the work on and off the court that I put in over the past eight years was elite you know, and obviously I think that’s the only thing I didn’t do, or didn’t accomplish is a championship, which is difficult to attain, but as far as bringing excitement to this city, taking care of the fans on and off the court is something that I try to contribute, so hopefully that outweighs that.” … The Nets, who began permitting a limited number of fans into Barclays on Feb. 23, will follow their return game against the Celtics next week by welcoming Detroit (March 13) and the arch rival New York Knicks (March 15) to the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush before embarking on a two-game road trip through Indiana (March 17) and Orlando (March 19).
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