There was this one possession early in the second quarter Monday night when James Harden found himself double-teamed on the right side by a pair of Spurs, and nonchalantly delivered a behind-the-back pass underneath to Nic Clayton for the gimme.
Harden makes the game look so easy it is so easy to imagine what the Nets can be if Kevin Durant can get his hamstring right after the All-Star break and join the party they plan on throwing in Brooklyn, especially if a star is being born in young Claxton (17 points in 17 minutes).
“When James is being James,” Kyrie Irving said, “it makes all our jobs a lot easier.”
There is no guarantee, of course, that too many cooks won’t spoil the Brooklyn broth when the heat gets hot in the playoff kitchen, but as the All-Star break nears, as his revenge game against the Rockets looms Wednesday night in Houston, James Harden has shown himself to be a model teammate, seamlessly Euro-stepping on the notion that one ball would never be enough for Durant, Irving and him.
“Honestly I just try to find ways to impact the game,” Harden said, “and not just score the basketball.”
He is a man on a mission, his seventh triple-double (30 points, 20 in the fourth quarter and OT, 14 rebounds, 15 assists, 0 turnovers) leading the Nets’ to a 124-113 victory, their first in San Antonio since 2002, only after they had let the Spurs score the last 10 points in the last two minutes of regulation.
The Nets’ three amigos all bring their own unique motivations to the table, but no one more than Harden.
For one: He’s 31 years old and hasn’t won an NBA championship.
Durant has two rings.
Irving has one ring.
Harden has learned the hard way that there are no medals for trying.
“It’s not a guarantee to me coming to Brooklyn is guaranteeing a title,” Harden said at his introductory press conference. “But I think for me, giving myself a chance is very, very important … younger, wanting to get paid and wanting to take care of my family was very, very important to me. Now … giving myself a chance to do something that I haven’t accomplished in this league.”
For two: He appears determined to change the narrative that followed him to Brooklyn.
Harden couldn’t play nice with Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul or John Wall, and so there were eyebrows raised when Nets GM Sean Marks pulled the trigger on a championship-or-bust move that would shine an even brighter spotlight on whether his rookie head coach, Steve Nash, could communicate and collaborate effectively with three stars with Empire State Building-sized egos.
It was, and is, a leap of faith that Nash could grow quickly enough to be Steve Kerr, who won the NBA championship as a rookie coach with the Warriors.
Just as it was, and is, a leap of faith that the Nets’ Big Three could replicate Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Durant in 2018 with the Warriors and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat before that.
The Rockets’ empowerment of Harden towards the end of his eight All-Star seasons in Houston resulted in a toxic environment that left Harden marching to his own drummer and singing for a divorce.
The Nets’ bold gamble will have a chance as long as The Beard continues to accept that he is no longer The Straw That Stirred The Drink, simply one of three straws that stir the drink.
The Beard is hair for his ring.
The change of scenery and environment appear to have rejuvenated Harden. He can score at will when he feels like it. He has willingly assumed the role of selfless facilitator/distributor, gifted as he is with an uncanny court vision and knack for knowing how to play the game. He helps on the glass. He is an All-Star for the ninth consecutive season. “He literally can do almost everything there is to do out there,” Nash said, “and he’s been a great leader for us.”
Harden is a maestro with the basketball in his hand, dictating the terms of engagement on nights when Irving defers or needs a breather.
Houston, you have a problem coming.
In some ways, a good problem. A charitable problem for storm-ravaged Houston.
“I’m just excited to be playing in front of those fans,” Harden said. “My plan is to touch as many people as I can in the sense of whether it’s food, whether it’s water, whether it’s building their homes, whether it’s making them smile, whatever the case may be, just try to touch thousands and thousands of people in that city because they’ve done that for me and they showed me and my family that much love.”
The Nets were anointed championship contenders the minute Durant and Irving decided to take their talents to Brooklyn. Spencer Dinwiddie’s torn ACL suffered only one week into the season and the dispatching of Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs to acquire Harden cut into the Nets’ depth.
Harden rebelled at the end of his daze in Houston — violating the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, maskless inside a club and attending rapper Lil Baby’s birthday party and frequenting Las Vegas clubs during his holdout at the beginning of training camp.
But with the Nets, he has been a prime-time rebel with a cause … and the cause is that elusive NBA championship.