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The Magic of James Harden

Larry Fleisher has covered the Nets for a variety of news organizations over the years. He knows the game and in this guest column examines how James Harden affects the game ... with his presence as well as his scoring.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes the headline says it all, like the headline to our recap, titled James Harden too much for the Nets.

Tuesday was the 16th time James Harden faced the Nets since entering the league as Oklahoma City’s first-round pick out of Arizona State in 2009.

While he is the league’s top scorer, it wasn’t always that way. He came off the bench in his first four games against the Nets, including an 0-for-10 showing on Dec. 28, 2009 in game that featured the Nets starting Yi Jianlian, Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Brook Lopez and Trenton Hassell.

You get the idea. It was a long time ago in NBA years.

Since going 14-of-41 in his first four games as a reserve against the Nets, Harden has scored at least 20 in nine games and 30 on four occasions.

On Tuesday, Harden totaled 36 against several attempts by the Nets to guard him. But it wasn’t just him. He made his teammates better, more efficient. And in many ways, that’s Harden’s magic. The focus is on him and he uses it to win.

In short, he did it in a variety of ways and when Harden wasn’t shooting, his presence could be felt in other ways, like how fast he ran up on transition and how seamless he was getting around screens ... especially those set by Clint Capela, which might explain why they Nets found how good the Rockets are when Capela, Paul, Harden are on the court together.

On Tuesday, the Nets allowed the Rockets to shoot 55.6 percent and 50 percent in three of four quarters. The Rockets “only” shot 47.1 percent in the fourth.

In the 34:23 Harden played, the Rockets were at their most proficient, shooting 50.8 percent (29 of 57) and they did it from all the major distances.

—From zero to 10 feet, the Rockets shot 68 percent (17 of 25) in a game where points in the paint were even at 50 for both teams.

—From 11 to 19 feet, which covers some of the mid-range two-pointers outside of the paint that many teams don’t emphasize, the Rockets shot 37.5 percent (3 of 8).

—From 20 feet and beyond, which covers 3-pointers, the Rockets shot 37.5 percent (9 of 24).

Harden was actually a minus-7 but ultimately plus-minus didn’t matter, he was tough to stop.

Among those who tried were DeMarre Carroll, who was able to stay with Harden at times though Carroll occasionally got screened off by Capela. When those screens were set, one of two things happened: Harden would drive and take care of it on his own against Jarrett Allen and others or he would drive and toss it up for Capela for an easy hoop.

Allen also tried and he had his own (rookie) experiences. Among them was rushing to provide help, getting his left hand close enough to him without fouling ... only to see Harden release a corner 3-pointer in the first quarter. Welcome to James Harden’s NBA, kid.

Spencer Dinwiddie took a few turns, too. He had mixed results. One play, Dinwiddie was cut off from Harden by a second screen and watched him drive about halfway through the lane and whip a nifty one-handed pass to an open Luc Mbah a Moute again for a 3-pointer.

On another sequence, Dinwiddie was able to withstand a screen a by Capela and forced Harden into a 3-point attempt that was well short. Small victories.

Caris LeVert also had his time in Harden’s pen. Late in the first half we saw what happened. Harden broke free from LeVert on the left wing, received a long bounce bass from Nene and when Jahlil Okafor was late with the help defense, the play ended with a Harden dunk.

Finally D’Angelo Russell gave it his shot.

On one possession, the Rockets used Capela as a screener and Harden sped past Russell and lifted a floater in.

A few possessions later, Russell was able to stay with Harden, got his right hand up to cover only to see a mid-range jumper go in.

Probably the Nets defensive highlight against Harden was a block by Okafor on the low block with about four minutes left. That led to a Dinwiddie 3-pointer and a brief lead but like success against Harden was as fleeting as a Brooklyn lead.

And then to cap it off was Rashad Vaughn’s welcome moment. Late in the game, Vaughn did all he could by getting his hands in Harden’s face and still gave up a 3-pointer.

There were a few solutions defensively against the league’s top scorer and a few good moments but certainly not enough. That’s why he is what he is, the game’s best scorer, capable of exploding for 60 points in a game as he did just last week or have back-to-back 51 point games in December or average 35 points a game over a month.

But again, Harden’s presence may be just as important as his scoring. The Nets should be relatively happy that at moments they were able to contain his greatest impulses and keep it close.