James Harden is back. So are the Nets as NBA title favorites.
It’s not the numbers or the stats. It’s the burst and the explosion.
Whether Harden needed the two-week layoff or two months of playing his way into shape, the Nets star has put his MVP form back on display and has left his early-season struggles behind.
“Yeah, that’s over with,” Harden said. “That’s over with.”
It seems to be.
After spending all summer rehabbing his hamstring instead of playing pickup, then adjusting to new teammates and new rules, Harden stumbled out of the starting blocks. He averaged just 16.6 points through the Nets’ 2-3 start, and 17.7 points on 38.5 percent shooting through nine games.
Despite all the breathless reports of his athletic demise, Harden has gotten better as the season has progressed. And now he’s displaying the dominance the Nets will need to beat the league’s elite.
In his last eight games — interrupted by a COVID-19 layoff — Harden is averaging 26.4 points, 10.9 assists and 8.4 rebounds. His 9.8 free throws per game during that span back up the eye test that says he has rediscovered his ability to drive. And he took a leap forward this past weekend.
Though Harden was asymptomatic and able to put in extra cardio work while he was quarantined, he has stormed out of health and safety protocols looking refreshed and reenergized. And he went to another level in dominating the Lakers and Clippers.
“Just want to win. Just trying to find ways to impact the game on a night in, night out basis. That’s it, man,” Harden said. “I just try to go out and do what I can to the best of my abilities every night, helping our team rebound, hitting our guys for open shots, hitting our bigs, make it easy for them and scoring the ball.”
He has done that and more lately, with no signs of rust.
After not playing since Dec. 10, Harden returned on Christmas and averaged a stellar 37.5 points, 12.5 assists and nine rebounds as the Nets swept the Lakers and Clippers.
That’s the Harden the Nets will need to contend for a title. And entering Thursday’s game against the 76ers, the Nets will be buoyed by that kind of form, if not shocked.
“[I’m] happy, I don’t know about surprised. I know he was doing his homework when he was at home,” coach Steve Nash said, adding, “When he plays like that we’re very difficult to beat.
“He was working out at home, trying to stay sharp and do what he could. I know he was eager when he was isolating. He was symptomless, too. He did a good job of doing what he could to put himself in a position to hit the ground running when he was back. … But still, incredibly impressive from any layoff — to come back and play at this level is pretty special.”
Maybe the 32-year-old Harden needed a rest. After all, he has averaged 39.5 minutes in his last nine games. Or perhaps it’s just a veteran playing his way into shape after being robbed of pickup games all summer.
Whatever the case, Harden knew it was coming. He didn’t know when, only that a breakthrough was around the corner.
“When you prepare yourself man to be great, there’s no surprise,” Harden said. “It’s just difficult, coming off the injury and finding myself and not having a chance to play pickup. And we don’t really practice because of the schedule, so you got to try and find yourself in games. Before COVID, I was getting into that rhythm and I was finding myself, and COVID hit.
“Priority number one was obviously I was resting, but making sure I was eating really good — which I’ve been doing — and then getting my cardio in. When I was able to work out and get in the gym, I was making sure I pushed myself a little harder. … At the end of the day it’s basketball. I’ve been doing it for a long time at the highest level and it’s pretty much simple.”
Or at least he’s making it look that way.