It’s been tough two weeks of navigating through the latest COVID-19 outbreak but the East-best Nets are exiting the difficult tunnel with a big bright light in the future.
Brooklyn entered the home stretch of getting two of their “Big Three” — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — as well as LaMarcus Aldridge out of the league’s health and safety protocols and the team couldn’t have received a better gift than James Harden showing consistent flashes of his vintage MVP form. To make things even better for the Nets, it came after a 15-day layoff that included 10 players entering health and safety protocols and three postponed games.
It was a particularly memorable West Coast trip for Harden, a trip that included the 32-year-old guard putting on a stellar showing in his hometown of Los Angeles, being the driving force of a confidence-building LA mini-sweep, one that erased a lot of the doubts that had followed him through the early part of the season. No, he has not “lost a step,” as some pundits claimed.
“Yeah, that’s over with,” Harden said this weekend. “That’s over with.”
Harden unwrapped a triple-double of 36 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in 39 minutes on Christmas Day and backed it up with a near triple-double of a season-high 39 points, eight rebounds, and a season-high 15 assists Monday night against the Clippers.
On his 10th assist in Monday’s victory, Harden became only the 10th player in NBA history to tally 20,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 6,000 assists and in between the two road wins, the Nets guard had his No. 13 jersey retired at Artesia High School in Lakeland, California on Sunday.
Harden, in fact, spoke with Malika Andrews in Artesia between the Lakers and Clippers games this weekend. Included in that conversation were his thoughts on the impending return of Kyrie Irving, which he welcomed...
New for @SportsCenter: James Harden tells ESPN Kevin Durant is “for sure” the league MVP. Plus, how he expects the Nets to play with Kyrie Irving back: pic.twitter.com/MBnyDIUB4V— Malika Andrews (@malika_andrews) December 29, 2021
He admitted to Andrews that things were bumpy for a while.
“I had to drop some pounds, once I dropped some weight, I started feeling better, feeling more explosive,” said Harden.
Harden’s head coach has been impressed not just by the numbers at the Crypto.com Center this weekend — 37.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 12.5 assists with 50/41/82 shooting splits — but his record of achievement.
“He’s historically great. The numbers he’s putting up are incredible. He’s one of the best players of his generation and it’s mind-boggling to think of all the numbers he’s put up and all the success he’s had,” said Steve Nash on Harden’s latest accomplishment. “He’s one of those very, very special players not only of his generation but historically. The numbers back it up.”
When asked whether he believes the 15-day layoff benefited him, Harden stated he felt good before the unexpected break, but added he stayed focused on being the best version of himself.
“Probably. I was starting to feel good right before then. That break, COVID, protocol, rest, whatever you want to call it, it could’ve went two ways. I just locked in on my body, my eating and when I was able to start working out, my workouts. I felt good,” Harden said. “My body felt good.
“I’m trying to make sure my body feels great so I can continue to keep going up in the regular season and preparing for the playoffs. Individually I have to make sure I’m in the best shape and I’m the best James form that I can be for my teammates. If I’m in that form, good things will happen for my team.”
The Nets superstar explained how he was able to utilize gym equipment in his apartment while in quarantine to help stay in basketball shape to play a pickup.
“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 No. 1 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.”
It may be “simple” to Harden but coming back from lengthy layoffs can be tricky and a flip of a coin when it comes to instant production. Nash said he’s “happy” the 15-day break didn’t go the opposite way and sees his guard’s MVP flashes as a dangerous sight for other teams to see.
“Happy. I don’t know about surprised. I wasn’t expecting it. You’re expecting guys to feel their way back into it. But from the jump against the Lakers and again tonight [against the Clippers] he’s just been clinical,” Nash said. “Just such a great head of the snake for us. When he plays like that we’re very difficult to beat.”
Harden wasn’t the only member of the “Big Three” who spoke in last few days about the Nets situation. Durant spoke to Eddie Gonzalez or Boardroom, saying among other things that, “Adding Kyrie to the equation just makes us so much better as a team. He was down, we were down, it was pretty simple, to be honest. ... We need more bodies, bring Kyrie on.”
“We wish this would’ve happened way earlier,” KD added. “But there was a lot that was going on with the start of the season”
Durant told Gonzalez that he had a “little cough” that he attributed to COVID.
Indeed, it appears that the Nets season took a big step forward over the last few days and not only because of the impending return of the “Big Three” and Joe Harris. Harden’s young protégé, Nic Claxton, appears to have turned a corner as well. In his last four games, the seven-footer is averaging 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.5 blocks while shooting 75.7 percent overall and 75 percent from the line. He tied his career high in points and set a new one in blocks and, oh yeah, did the dunk dagger vs. the Lakers.
If all goes well, Irving should be back on the court — in cities other than New York (and Toronto)— following a ramp-up expected to last one or two weeks, the duration of which will depend on how he looks. Remember, the Nets haven’t really seen him since training camp in San Diego back in September.
Even without Irving at Barclays Center, the re-emergence of an MVP-level Harden combined with and MVP-level Durant will pose a lot of challenges for opposing teams that enter the Brooklyn arena.
“Hopefully he [Harden] can continue this and when we get everybody back, it’s going to be scary hours for real,” said Claxton after the Clippers game.
Scary Hours may have been delayed a bit, but it looks like they’ve finally arrived.
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