When the Nets acquired James Harden in a blockbuster trade with the Rockets last month, the conventional wisdom was that he would have to sacrifice shots in order to coexist alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Now it turns out that it is Irving who is sacrificing his natural position of point guard in order to allow Harden to thrive at the point.
“I feel that he’s been doing a great job of just managing the point guard role,” Irving said after the Nets beat Steph Curry and the Warriors, 134-117, Saturday night at Chase Center.
“We established that maybe four days ago now. I just looked at him and I said, ‘You’re the point guard, and I’m the shooting guard,’ and that was as simple as that. So he’s been taking control of the responsibilities and doing an incredible job. And it just makes my job easier, just go out and make plays and play free, so it’s a luxury.”
Harden entered the game leading the NBA in assists at 11.0 per game and then dished out 16 assists with 19 points and eight rebounds against the Warriors.
Irving, meantime, thrived while scoring 23 points on 10-of-17 shooting along with five boards and four assists as the Nets improved to 16-12 in the first game of their West Coast swing. Irving scored on a variety of drives, pullups and three-pointers. The Nets had 35 assists and 13 turnovers in the game.
Asked if he had to make a mental change to switch positions, Irving said, “I’ve played on so many levels of basketball at this point, this is just figuring it out in terms of as a competitor so it’s fun, it’s a fun challenge. Not every night does it look good, but when it does look good, we celebrate our performance and just want to have consistency after that.”
Harden initially said he would be more of a facilitator in Brooklyn, and recently said it was “draining” to have to be the man by scoring 40+ points each night in Houston.
“I came into this team knowing they have two special scorers on this team,” Harden said. “Obviously, I score when I need to but as long as I’m getting everybody involved and Ky’s getting the shots that he wants, KD’s getting the shots that he wants, it’s pretty efficient, it seems to work well that way.
“And offensively is not the problem for us. We can score in bunches, it’s defensively, and it seems like we’re getting the rhythm as of late, so we just gotta keep it up.”
First-year head coach Steve Nash said last month that Harden’s natural position is point guard, and that was while Irving missed seven games for “personal reasons” and then Covid protocols.
“Throwing Kyrie in the mix makes us better,” Nash said before Irving returned. “It’s a good problem to have, trying to figure out how they can coexist to their highest level and standard.
“So I think it takes time, it’s going to be an adjustment for everyone but it’s an incredible problem to have and something that I think we’ll relish.”
After Irving re-joined the team, he and Harden alternated at the point, with Irving also playing off the ball.
Now Harden says it makes life easier for everyone knowing that his and Irving’s roles are more clearly defined. This was just the seventh game where the “Big 3” of Harden, Durant and Irving played together.
“[We talked] in practice and we were just going over sets and when coach says, “James you’re going to be taking the ball up top and getting guys in our sets’ and we’re all fine with it,” Harden said. “For me as a point guard, I try to get guys shots and knowing where guys like the ball at. Kyrie’s an unbelievable scorer, he can score anywhere on the floor, so just making sure he’s involved….And that third quarter he was super, super aggressive.”
Irving said he’s sacrificing for the greater good of the team, which has aspirations of winning an NBA title.
“We don’t want to take our greatness for granted in terms of where it is now and then we want to hold each other accountable to reach another level in temrs of the long term,” Irving said.
“[We’re] just trying to build some camaraderie out there and just have fun dominating. Obviously, we played against a good team [Saturday] with Steph leading the group but it was just a great challenge to start off the West Coast trip. But we look forward to continuing to have performances where we understand coming into the game that we have to sacrifice, each one of us, to have our highest potential as a team
“It’s not an individual game. We’re not called upon to each be the main guy so we gotta sacrifice and it’s fun.”