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Mike James carving out a role with Nets but back in Europe, more controversy

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

When one James goes down, another arises. Same with controversy, apparently.

With James Harden sidelined with a reaggravated right hamstring strain and Chris Chiozza out for the remainder of the regular season with a fractured right hand, Mike James has taken advantage of his 10-day opportunity, shining in his three games with the Nets while growing the trust of teammates, coaches —and fans— along the way.

But while James has become the Nets new fan favorite, he was again subject of controversy in Europe a day after his starring role in Tuesday’s win over Toronto. The Russian league coach who suspended James, permitting him to sign with Brooklyn, spoke out for the first time, blasting James (if not by name) and implying he forced his way out so he could sign in the NBA.

Will it matter to the Nets or their fans? Unlikely. They’re more than happy with his play ... and leadership. In a way, it was tale of two cities, Brooklyn and Moscow, and it all happened within 24 hours. Let’s start with Brooklyn.

Tuesday night, the former EuroLeague star was granted fourth-quarter minutes vs. the pesky Raptors and excelled. It was, in fact, his second big game out of three, starting with an impressive debut against Boston —eight points and +17 in 21 minutes. On Tuesday, with the superstars not at their best, the Nets were desperately in need of a spark. And James provided it.

The Raptors, who had scorched the Nets in their backyard for 11 straight road victories dating back to 2015, were nursing a 90-84 cushion in the opening minutes of the fourth. The odds were against Brooklyn. The Raptors had denied the Nets a needed a spark using an aggressive and gritty defensive team.

James, who was the only Nets to play the full 12 minutes in the final frame, manned the point down the stretch and turned things around, essentially taking charge in his third NBA game in three years. He fueled the shorthanded Nets’ late 22-6 scoring run to secure the come-from-behind 116-103 win in Tampa ... and the Nets’ third straight playoff berth.

James concluded the Nets exciting night with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting overall (hitting his lone three) to go with eight assists and three rebounds, finishing +9 in the contest.

Kevin Durant, who knows James through his brother Tony, spoke about his play down the stretch, giving his new teammate a ringing endorsement.

“In that fourth quarter, we put the ball in Mike’s hands and told him to get into the paint, run pick-and-roll and he was able to get something great,” Durant said. “We ended up making some tough shots there in the fourth but we had a nice rhythm and momentum with that offense we were running. We got shooters around Mike, Jeff [Green] rolling to the rim and we were able to get stops as well on the other end.”

Here’s a collection of some of those pick-and-roll plays as Brooklyn’s table-setter...

James, who’s midway through his 10-day deal, has already established trust with the Nets coaching staff and his new teammates. Joe Harris, who has seen many players come and go throughout his ongoing five-year Nets tenure, called James a “good point guard” and spoke about the trust Steve Nash and the coaching staff have in the 6’1” combo guard.

“I think Mike has been great, coming in and playing his game. He’s just a good point guard. Being able to get into the paint, create for guys. He does an excellent job driving and finding open guys but he can also get his own shot too,” Harris said. “For him to be with us for a week and we’re running plays for him at the end of the game says a lot. The coaching staff and the rest of the guys on the team basically are instilling confidence in whoever we’re playing with allows guys to play with freedom and come out and play their game.”

James has a lengthy yet complicated playing resume, highlighted by a Euroleague scoring title in 2019, the Greek League’s “Most Spectacular Player” two years earlier and twice winning the Greek Basket League championship. The 6’1” guard is a journeyman in the best sense of the word, seeing different styles of basketball ... and thriving in different leagues on the European circuit - a marker that has helped instill his teammates’ early trust.

“He’s been around the world playing the game of basketball so he’s seen different styles of play. At his age and with his experience, he’s one of those guys you can throw in at any time and he can be himself,” Durant said. “He knows who he is as a player. Once guys figure out what their games are like and how they approach the game, I think it’s easier for them to slide in and contribute right away. Mike is one of those guys and tonight, he got hot for us and we stuck with him.”

That overseas history, mixed with 36 games of prior NBA experience with the Suns and Pelicans, resonates with Nash. The Nets head coach believes James can play a role in the Nets backcourt and his guard skillset is a huge value in Nash’s eyes.

“He’s an athletic and skilled player. As long as he plays simple and makes good basketball plays like he has with us these first few games, he can play a role for us,” Nash said. “He has a burst of pace. He can get in the paint, play draw-and-kick. He showed he can score the ball. We know that from his history,” Nash said. “If he can be that guard that ups the pace, that penetrates, draw the defense and makes the extra pass, that’s a huge value of our team.

“Really great performance from him tonight and those are some of the tools that he can bring to the table for us.”

In fact, James said he doesn’t want to have the load of being a star at this stage of his playing career.

“As you get older, I don’t want to have that much responsibility on my shoulder every night,” James said Friday. “Playing 21 minutes a night is better for me and not being as much as a focal point. I feel like I can shine in that if I got the opportunity.”

James said he wanted to stay loose early on and credited his teammates with helping.

“Just try to get comfortable really. When you go into a new situation, you kind of just want to have a chance to mess and still kind of play a little bit. I felt like my teammates and coaches encouraged me to be aggressive and keep pushing the pace,” James said. “I think I made some good stuff happen and made some bad stuff happen. [I] got to get better for the next game.”

James agent offered his services to both New York teams but while the Knicks engaged in “due diligence,” the Nets signed him. Everyone knw it wasn’t without risk. James hadn’t played since the end of March when he was suspended by CSKA Moscow after an altercation with his coach, Dimitris Itoudis. And while he was getting rave reviews in Brooklyn Wednesday, it was different in Moscow. On Wednesday night after a big win in the Euroleague playoffs, CSKA coach Dimitris Itoudis blasted James ... without naming him. It was obviously aimed at James and it was ugly.

Taking off on the message in James’ pinned tweet, “No discounts on my services!!!,” Itoudis told reporters, “I can’t do discounts on ethics.” In his remarks, he seemed to suggest James forced his way out.

“In everybody’s job, if you don’t feel that you belong, then you try to find a way to go out. Ιf you feel that you belong, you will give your best self, regardless of what’s your position… But if you feel that you don’t belong there, then you don’t try to find a way. In a team which is a body of 15-16 people with different ideas, you have to bring them under the same umbrella.”

Moreover, in what could have been a calculated leak, Gazzeto della Sport, the big Italian sports paper, published a email that Ettore Messina, the respected international and NBA coach, sent James in June 2019 telling him his services were no longer required by Olimpia Milano, This after James led the Euroleague in scoring. It, too, was scathing.

I have the utmost respect for your talent but I am worried by the long list of behaviors and violations of the team rules you’ve had in the past season. I asked you explicitly if you felt you can ensure that you will follow the disciplinary standards inside and out of the court from here forward: I’ve never had a complete verbal commitment about it. The fact that no one in the team, at any level, has ever talked to you or have ever fined you for your behavior is completely irrelevant for me. The only thing that matters is that these behaviors will never be tolerated under my guide.

James seemed to respond in a tweet not long after the news spread across the Atlantic.

Earlier in the week, James described his relationship as personal, not professional.

“With [Dimitris] Itoudis, some things happened in my personal life. I felt like stuff didn’t go as I thought and somebody should handle my situations. We had a little clash there. Not really as a basketball player did I have a clash with Itoudis. As two men, we had clashed. Not really on the basketball courts,” James said. “That’s kind of what happened.”

No doubt, the Nets knew all the details when they signed James. The controversy will likely be met with a shrug. What’s past is past. The Nets have things to do.

Looking ahead, James’ 10-day contract expires Sunday. The league rules permit Brooklyn to ink the guard to another 10-day deal. If the Nets decide to keep the crafty guard, the team will have to sign him to a standard deal if they want to play in the post-season. Or they could move him into a two-way slot. But before they do, they’d have to dump either the injured Chris Chiozza or the rookie Reggie Perry. That would seem unlikely.

Just after LaMarcus Aldridge was forced to retire because of a heart condition, a league source predicted accurately that the Nets wouldn’t sign a big but go for a point guard. However, he cautioned there were only “slim pickings on the point guard front.” In the NBA, that no doubt was true. But the Nets once again went outside the box. So far, very good.