In his much-anticipated return to Houston, James Harden heard the jeers first. Then he received the cheers. And by the end, he got the victory.
Harden’s triple-double led his new team past his old one, as the Nets cruised to a 132-114 win over the struggling Rockets at Toyota Center.
The reception from the 3,900-plus on hand wasn’t quite as venomous as Kevin Durant received during his return to Oklahoma City. But Harden — who demanded a trade and forced his way to Brooklyn — was mostly booed at introductions, and his every touch was jeered in the early stages of the game.
But the Rockets — who plan to retire Harden’s No. 13 jersey — honored him with a first-quarter video tribute that drew genuine cheers. Moved, Harden responded by raising both his hands in acknowledgement, then touched them to his heart.
“A lot of mixed emotions for the fans,” Harden said in a TV interview, thanking Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta for vowing to retire his jersey. “But my team did an unbelievable job and had my back, allowing me to come out here and get this win.”
The positive sentiment had been echoed by the Rockets’ first-year coach, Stephen Silas, whose job was made a whole lot tougher when Harden demanded a trade.
“I’d hope that it’d be positive for him. He did a lot for this organization. So we’ll see, obviously, but I would assume it’d be positive,” Silas said. “He’s done a whole lot, scored a lot of points, carried this team to the playoffs.
“And he was here for a long time and they were much more good moments with James Harden for the Rockets than bad, so he should be recognized for that.”
Harden, who openly said the Rockets weren’t good enough as he tried to get himself dealt, showed Houston how good his new squad is. He had 29 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds, just the sixth player to face his former team and get a triple double. He guided the Nets to a 23-point lead and a franchise-record seventh consecutive road win.
Kyrie Irving scored 24 points, while rapidly emerging second-year big man Nic Claxton had 16 points (on 7-for-8 shooting) and eight boards off the bench.
The shorthanded Rockets (11-23) played with just eight men, and it showed. They got a season-high 36 points from John Wall and 33 from Victor Oladipo, but lost their 13th straight.
The Nets (24-13) ended the first half of the season with the third-best winning percentage in team history, and sit a half-game from the Eastern Conference lead after the 76ers rallied for an overtime win over the Jazz.
The Nets led 82-59 after a floater by Bruce Brown (17 points) with 7:35 left in the third. They then coughed up a 21-8 run that allowed the Rockets to pull within 90-80 with 2:25 left in the period on an Oladipo 3-pointer.
Landry Shamet’s left-corner 3 padded the cushion right back up to 18. Houston sliced it back to 105-97 after Wall drilled a jumper over tough defense by Andre Roberson.
But a Claxton putback and a Harden 3-pointer gave the Nets a 113-97 edge with 6:48 to play. The fourth quarter turned into a pickup game.
Harden won the 2018 MVP with Houston, led the Rockets to a pair of Western Conference Finals and claimed the past three scoring crowns. His contributions on the court may have been surpassed by those he made in the community.
In 2017, Harden gave $1 million to the city of Houston for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. And as the Houston area dealt with power outages and food shortages after last month’s winter freeze, his restaurant, Thirteen by James Harden, donated 3,000 meals for needy residents. A week later, the restaurant donated 100 meals a day to five different schools, and another 150 to a low-income senior center.
Still, many fans were mostly salty as expected.
“Fans can be emotional, and rightfully so. They might be upset for the night. But whether it’s [now] or some point in the future, they’re going to remember fondly all the amazing things that James did here and Mike [D’Antoni, former Rockets coach and now Nets assistant] did here,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “Sometimes it’s a little too soon, a little too hot. So we’ll see how it is.
“The community here will really respect and remember them fondly, but it’s too soon.”