Prior to the Nets 124-108 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Nic Claxton described the eventual return of Kyrie Irving as the “scary hour.” After the way that James Harden played on Monday, it’s hard to imagine how much scarier the Nets could get.
But Brooklyn left LA with a pair of important wins, the high likelihood of Kevin Durant returning to the Nets’ lineup on Thursday, and a Harden who appears to have found his game in a big way after an up-and-down start to the season.
In his second game back from health and safety protocol, Harden continued the tear he was on during Christmas Day, putting up 39 points, 15 assists, and eight rebounds against the Clippers on Monday.
The two games have been a far cry from the early season struggles for Harden, who entered the year coming off of a hamstring injury while he admittedly had a hard time balancing scoring and being a playmaker.
All of that seems like a distant memory to Harden now.
“Yes, that’s over with. That’s over with,” he said.
No one is going to doubt that after the way the lone member of the Nets “Big 3” has played, especially on Monday when he put up a season-high in points. The nine-time NBA All-Star drove to the basket and opened up the offense for his teammates with his smart ball movement.
“I think he’s put a ton of pressure on the defense,” Nets head coach Steve Nash said. “I don’t sit at home thinking like he’s got to score or assist or he’s got to do this or that. He’s just got to be aggressive. Try to attack, put pressure on the defense, whether it’s hockey assists or just takes a double-team and moves it, whether he scores or gets fouled or throws a lob.
“It’s really just about the mentality of being aggressive and to make the right play. And that’s, I think, what we see from him at his best.”
Harden’s ability to come back into the lineup at such a peak level didn’t surprise him. Harden was able to work out during protocol since he had weights and machines to use while at home.
He also felt as if he was starting to find his form before COVID forced him off the court.
“I was kind of starting to feel good before [COVID protocol],” Harden said. “My body started to feel really good. That protocol or COVID or rest or whatever you want to call it could have gone one of two ways. I just locked in on my body, my eating, and when I was able to start working out, my workouts.”
With Harden back in form and reinforcements on the way, the East-leading Nets look to be a force that will be hard for opposing teams to stop.
Harden’s MVP-esque performance came without Durant in the lineup on Monday, but that may not be the case come Thursday at home against the Philadelphia 76ers. Nash said there was a “good chance” that Durant could be out of COVID protocol when the team returned to New York.
LaMarcus Aldridge is also expected to clear protocol this week and rejoin the team.
When both players do return to the court it will be to a confident Nets squad that has won six of its last seven contests. Confidence that Harden described as “through the roof.”
“Now just you add KD, and Ky, and LaMarcus and Joe Harris, and that’s four of our best players,” Harden said. “Four of our top players that are out. Our confidence level for our bench and guys that are checking in the game is high. They can come in the game and impact the game in different ways. We can find different ways to win basketball games and that’s what it’s about. It’s not always gonna be pretty, we’re not always gonna make shots, but defensively we can get after it and lock teams down.”