James Harden’s body looked better, and so did his body language. Harden’s give-a-damn level is back, and so is he.
The 31-year-old star still hasn’t practiced with his new teammates just yet, but against the decimated Orlando Magic, he didn’t need to. Harden posted a triple-double in his debut with the Nets, finishing with 32 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds, as Brooklyn secured a 122-115 victory over Orlando on Saturday night at Barclays Center.
At the end of his tenure in Houston, Harden looked miserable. He wanted out. He acted out. He was out of shape. He gave less than 100 percent. His Rockets’ teammates were all publicly thrilled when he was gone. As a result, the pressure is on.
Nets’ fans always like to joke about Joe Johnson’s quote from 2015: “It’s not that bad here.” Well, Harden has made no secret that he’s absolutely thrilled to be in Brooklyn, a place where he thinks he can win his first championship.
“From the press conference, he looked more like himself. Fitting right in more than I expected,” was how one former NBA assistant coach put it.
In pregame warmups, photos surfaced of a slimmer-looking Harden. Steve Nash even admitted after the game that his new point guard still needs to get his fitness back, but Harden definitely appears rejuvenated with his new team.
Early on, Harden’s emphasis was on making plays and getting his teammates involved. He finished with nine turnovers – struggling to find his way early – before making several razzle-dazzle passes, looking like a floor general that can do serious damage with all these new weapons at his disposal.
Harden’s long-held reputation for pounding the ball into the ground was different than what he displayed on Saturday night. And that’s a better strategy as he tries to fit in and sacrifice on a team with title-or-bust expectations.
Harden’s desire to reunite with ex-Thunder teammate Kevin Durant began to grow as they worked out together over the summer in Los Angeles. Starting together for the first time in 700 days (2019 All-Star Game), the duo was unstoppable. Durant, 32, finished with a season-high 42 points. In the fourth, they combined for 27 points: Durant 14, Harden 13.
Exactly two years ago, Harden scored 58 against Brooklyn, but the Nets managed a come-from-behind upset of the Rockets thanks to the fourth-quarter heroics of Spencer Dinwiddie. Now, it’s Harden wearing the retro, New Jersey colors for the home team.
At one point, Durant was frustrated with himself for missing an easy layup, but there was Harden encouraging him at the scorer’s table, making sure his friend quickly turned his focus onto the next play.
Harden looks forward to playing with both Durant and Kyrie Irving, who has been out for six games and counting due to unknown personal reasons. Irving’s actions have called into question his commitment to the game. But if he can get it together, the team has the potential to be a historic offensive force.
“It’s gonna be scary hours out there,” Harden said when asked about the NBA’s newest Big Three.
Yes, this team can be a problem if it can overcome all its own problems – from egos to defense and everything in between. It’s why everyone is wishing Nash, “Good luck.” Especially after one of the more bizarre weeks this league has seen in awhile.
Monday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks will provide another early measuring stick as it pertains to future Eastern Conference supremacy.
James Harden’s debut went as well as could be expected. Combined with KD’s MVP level of production so far, there are reasons for hope. Harden is also playing with joy and passion again. Indeed, it could be “scary hours” for opponents if Kyrie Irving can do the same.