James Harden fires up Nets in victorious return
Superstar spearheads Brooklyn past San Antonio at Barclays
Eighteen games or a month and a half.
Either way it was way too long for James Harden not to play the game he loves so dearly.
“This is the longest I’ve been without playing basketball,” the two-time Eastern Conference Player of the Month revealed Wednesday night after returning to the Barclays Center hardwood for the first time since March 31 due to a nagging hamstring strain.
Harden scored 18 points, handed out 11 assists and ripped down seven rebounds in his much-anticipated comeback, lifting the Nets to a 128-116 victory over the visiting San Antonio Spurs in front of 1,773 fans on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush.
The former NBA Most Valuable Player and three-time scoring champion didn’t enter the contest until nearly four minutes had gone by in the second quarter.
But when he did, Harden reminded the sparse but throaty Barclays Center crowd and his teammates just how vital he has been to their drive toward the franchise’s first-ever title this season.
“I didn’t know how (I would respond), especially coming off the bench, not playing the first quarter, having to stay warm and do all the things necessary to go out there and be my best,” admitted Harden, who went 6-of-8 from the floor, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range.
“I just have to go out there and play with confidence and do what I do and not think about anything,” he added. “It took me a little bit, but it’s just basketball at the end of the day and something that I love doing.”
And the Nets (45-24) are overjoyed that Harden is doing it just in time for what many Brooklynites hope will be an historic playoff run.
“I thought he was great. It’s not easy to take, I think he’s been out five weeks, and to play in an actual NBA game sometimes can be difficult especially in a year like this,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash after Brooklyn won its third in a row following a season-high four-game skid.
“In a regular year you kind of simulate some practices or some stay ready groups that are a little more, I don’t know, robust so to speak. We’ve got so many guys that have been injured so he hasn’t had a lot of opportunities in that respect so I thought he was fantastic, happy to see him back and most importantly no recurrence of the injury.”
Landry Shamet, who managed just one point against Chicago here Tuesday, led the Nets with 21 points while Nic Claxton added 18 for Brooklyn, which will close out the regular-season at Barclays Saturday vs. Chicago and Sunday vs. Chicago.
Jeff Green scored 16 points and Kevin Durant and Bruce Brown had 14 apiece for the Nets, who were without third superstar Kyrie Irving due to a facial injury suffered during Tuesday’s victory over the Bulls.
“We’re just moving the ball, playing with some pace, trying to get up and down and get easy ones,” said Brown.
“And then we’re just making the right play every time down. That’s what we’re trying to do. And they’re just doubling Kevin, so we’re just getting easy layups at the bucket and when James comes back easy layups at the rim as Nic did today and Jeff did.”
Though its unlikely that Harden will play both games this weekend, it is still heartening that the Nets got their top facilitator back, giving him at least some time to build up his game back up for the postseason.
“While I’m not saying he was firing on all cylinders, I thought he was pretty impressive,” Nash said. “Pleasantly surprised. You could see where there would be more rust but he was pretty sharp, played well, obviously impacted the game greatly, so really impressed.”
Though they’ve only played seven games together thus far this season, it is looking more and more like Harden, Durant and Irving will all be available next week when the Nets begin their push to grab Brooklyn’s first major pro sports championship since 1955.
Harden’s acquisition earlier this season and his victorious return Wednesday night should help the Nets in that lofty quest.
“It was a welcome sight for sure. Happy to have him back,” said Shamet.
Antoine Duplantis went 2-for-5 with two RBIs, including the go-ahead run in the sixth inning, as the Brooklyn Cyclones edged the Greenville Drive, 3-2, Wednesday night in front of 1,819 fans at Fluor Field for their third consecutive win.
Brian Metoyer (1-0) picked up the victory in relief after yielding an unearned run on one hit over two solid innings.
Mitch Ragan tossed two scoreless frames for his first save of the year as the Cyclones improved to 4-3 on their season-opening road trip.
Brooklyn, which will return to MCU Park for its home opener on May 18, was slated to take on the Drive again Thursday night.
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