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James Harden registers near triple-double in return; Nets beat struggling Spurs, 128-116

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NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

It was the return of James Harden and it was a beautiful thing.

The Nets continued their hot play Wednesday, defeating the Spurs, 128-116. With the win, Brooklyn rises to 46-24 on the season and secures the season-sweep over San Antonio for only the third time in franchise history. With the win, the Nets moved a game and a half above the Bucks in the fight for the second seed and trail the Sixers by a game in a half for the first seed in the East.

Brooklyn entered the final two minutes of play with a commanding 122-108. After a 26-foot three from James Harden, Steve Nash decided to release the bench with 1:12 remaining and the Nets went on to secure the victory.

The story of the game was the return of Harden, who missed the Nets' previous 18 games and 20 of the last 21. Harden showed little signs of court rust in his return — hitting a pair of his signature step-back threes and dishing a handful of nifty assists along the way.

The Beard finished his return with 18 points — 6-of-8 shooting from the field and 3-of-4 from deep — to go with 11 assists and seven rebounds in 26 minutes of play off the bench. Prior to the game, Nash said he will be on a minutes restriction. Brooklyn is now 28-7 with the former MVP in the lineup.

“We just wanted to play down the stretch if we were in a tight game,” said Nash on the decision to have Harden come off the bench.

The Nets head coach said he was “pleasantly surprised” with Harden’s play in his return and was impressed like everyone else who was watching.

“I was pleasantly surprised. You expect some rust and I’m not saying he was firing on all cylinders, but he was pretty impressive” said Nash on Harden’s performance in his return. “You can see where there could be more rust, but he was pretty sharp, played well, and impacted the game greatly. Really impressed.”

The Nets finished with eight players in double-figures while playing 12 of their active 13 players with DeAndre Jordan as the only DNP. Landry Shamet paved the way for Brooklyn scoring-wise, finishing with 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 from deep in 35 minutes.

Nicolas Claxton benefited with Harden in the lineup, registering a new career-high 18 points to go along with five rebounds in 23 minutes of play off the bench.

“It was beautiful playing with James [Harden] again. [He] opened things up for everybody. Just his vision and makes the game easier for everybody, so we are excited to have him back,” said Claxton on playing with Harden.

Jeff Green also once again provided a heavy lift off the bench as well, scoring 16 points in 19 minutes of play. Kevin Durant had a quiet 14-point performance on 4-of-10 shooting from the field and a scoreless 0-of-4 from deep.

Brooklyn dished 30+ assists — 33 total — for the second straight game and the 26th time this season — extending a franchise record. The team averaged 26.6 assists heading into Wednesday’s win. The Spurs, who are nursing the 10th seed in the Western Conference standings, drops to 33-36 on the season with the loss.

DeMar DeRozan led the Spurs with 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field followed by Dejounte Murray, who finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes of play. San Antonio concludes the loss shooting 43-of-101 (42.6 percent) from the field and an ice-cold 8-of-31 from deep (25.8 percent).

Brooklyn came out of the gates strong converting defense into early offense, hitting five of their first six shots — two points coming from a drive down Flatbush Avenue from Durant that ended with an emphatic slam.

The Nets were rolling on both ends of the floor midway through the first, forging a 13-0 run behind the play of James, who scored nine points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field in the frame. Brooklyn ended the first with a 35-20 lead shooting 65 percent from the floor while dishing 10 assists on 15 made shots. Their defense held San Antonio to zero assists and shooting 31 percent from the field and scoreless from deep.

Brooklyn’s rotation also included two players who hadn’t seen the court in the last handful of games, shattering Tyler Johnson (four games) and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s (five games) DNP streaks.

After a hot first quarter, the Nets started cold while the Spurs clawed back, cutting the deficit to seven on a 14-3 run. Then, Brooklyn subbed in Harden at the 8:06 mark in the second to a standing ovation.

His impact was immediately felt, leading a strong finish at the end of the first half. Harden mixed in three assists and two points in eight minutes of play to help boost Brooklyn to a six-point advantage (57-51) at the break.

The Nets hit the break shooting 51.2 percent (22-of-43) from the field and a sluggish 31.3 percent from deep (5-of-16) led by Shamet with 13 points on a near-perfect shooting performance — 5-of-6 shooting from the floor and 3-of-4 from deep. Griffin was the only other Net in double-figures at the break with 11 points to go along with three boards and three assists in 16 minutes of play.

San Antonio, who tried to make a push in the opening minutes of the second frame, had no players in double-figures at the break — shooting 39.2 percent from the floor and 40.0 percent from deep. The Spurs capitalized on their fast break, scoring 16 of their 51 points in that category while the Nets held the advantage in the paint, 30-26.

It was a high-scoring affair with little defense in the opening minutes of the third with a the two teams combining for 26 points in the first three minutes. Brooklyn grew their lead to 16 on a 7-0 run that included a left-wing step-back three from Harden — the first of his signature shots in his return.

Indeed, it didn't take long for Harden to let everyone know he’s back, hitting another signature step-back three while putting Devin Vassell on skates and celebrating with an and-one ... and a dance.

Brooklyn went on to outscore San Antonio 39-30 in the third, heading into the final 12 minutes of play nursing a 96-81 lead. The Nets continued to hold the Spurs to tough shots along the perimeter, shooting 6-of-24 from behind the arc. Shamet, who scored seven points in the third frame, led the Nets in scoring after three with 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 from three.

The Nets are now 30-3 when they score 120 points in a game, 22-2 when they score 125.

The Film Room

There’s something so calming about the way James Harden plays basketball. He just... elevates winning, regardless of whether he’s having a good shooting night or not (though 6-for-8 from the field is certainly nothing to sneeze at). His constant mismatch hunting, that ability to always make the right play without fear of the shot clock, that unteachable passing vision (you could argue the best in the league), it’s special. He simply keeps the guys around him feeling involved, a part of something, humming with a sense of community with every pocket pass. It’s why the teams he plays for tend to win so much. He’s a leader.

“I know I can score the basketball, but I take pride in getting guys involved,” said Harden. “Letting guys be involved in the offense and that way defensively, we can be locked in and it’s just a lot easier. I want everybody to get their shots, whether it’s rolls to the rim or three-point catch-and-shoots or whatever the case may be.”

Seriously, there are, what, 15, 20 players (less?) in the league that make this pass with consistency?

He makes this pass look routine (again, he’s a special passer), but the difficulty of a crosscourt dime to the corner over a trap is way, way up there. The thing to notice is the timing; rather than tossing that thing right away, he waits for Jakob Poeltl to “tag” the rolling Bruce Brown as the help defender before tossing the rock to Blake Griffin, who drives the closeout for the bucket. Timing is everything in this game, and it’s what differentiates a good pass from a great one.

Should the defense screw up their switching, they’re, well, screwed! Rudy Gay is caught up with trying desperately to stay with James Harden rather than grabbing the “slipping” Nicolas Claxton, and that’s an “easy” pass for James Harden, one he’s made a million times before.

The caption from the clip above isn’t lying. The dude just makes basketball look easy.

James Harden is still really freaking confident

On top of dropping a triple-double off the bench, Harden flexed his trademarked confidence that we’ve grown accustomed to in Brooklyn. When asked if he was surprised that he returned with such ease after the long layoff, Harden answered with the most Harden-esque response possible.

“Not really,” said Harden about his return. “Not to like brag or anything, but I’m like, really good at this game. I study the game. I’m very unselfish. I take the game and I play the right way. I don’t try and do anything I can’t do or anything that doesn’t help the team. That mindset right there keeps me in a really good place.”

“Not to brag or anything, but I’m like, really good at this game.”

What a line.

Sean Marks talks about James Harden, Steve Nash, COVID, ‘Big Three’ as mentors, etc.

Michael Grady hosted a talk Sean Marks gave to season ticket holders earlier this week discussing a number of subjects. YES aired a bit of it during the game. In that section, Marks noted how before the trade he had spoken with former Rockets GM Daryl Morey about Harden as a “basketball savant,” able to talk about all aspects of the game from analytics to the Draft to coaching. Marks also said that he can be “brutally honest” with Harden and he’ll be “brutally honest” back. He spoke as well as the level of competitiveness that Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving possess.

YES also posted a longer version of the conversation on YouTube in which Marks spoke about Steve Nash’s transition as a coach, calling him “the man for the job,;” the mentoring role played by the “Big Three;” what neighborhoods he likes in Brooklyn and his desire to see fans back in Barclays Center, “rocking the building.”

Mike James is here to stay

Following the game, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the Nets will ink Mike James to a standard deal — making him eligible to play in the playoffs.

Prior to Wednesday’s game, Steve Nash hinted at the news that his 6’1” point guard is here to stay.

“I can’t confirm anything. I would say that the front office will sit with Mike tonight or tomorrow, but we’ve been really happy with Mike. I’d imagine he’ll be with us, but I can’t confirm anything at this point,” said Nash on James’ future. “That decision will be made tonight or tomorrow, but as I said, we’ve been very happy with Mike and what’s he’s brought to the team.”

James finished his second 10-day with two solid performances, scoring 11 points and handing out seven assists vs. the Bulls on Tuesday, then 12 points and five assists vs. the Spurs. James joined the Nets last month after a stint with CSKA Moscow, the Euroleague powerhouse, that ended with him being suspended by the Russian team’s coach.. He is expected to rejoin CSKA next season.

Kyrie Irving cleared to play for the weekend

Kyrie Irving was scratched just before the pregame of Wednesday’s game due to a nasty facial contusion that he suffered on Tuesday. Fortunately, it’s nothing serious, say the Nets. Steve Nash confirmed that Irving suffered no serious structural damage nor concussion symptoms and will be cleared to play by the weekend when the Nets have an afternoon back-to-back.

“Kyrie’s scans were clear, fortunately,” said Nash. “No concussions, nothing on the scan. So, just precautionary.”

For now, it appears the Nets will get at least one trial run of its “Big Three” prior to the start of the playoffs, providing that nothing unexpected happens (knock on wood). The Nets face the Chicago Bulls on Saturday and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday for a season-ending back-to-back.

“If they get that time to play, it’d be great,” said Nash about the Big 3. “If they don’t, they don’t.”

Go West, Young Team!

With the win over the Spurs, the Nets finished playing Western Conference team for the season and it was easily the franchise best. The Nets wound up with a 22-8 record against teams out West. That’s a franchise record for wins vs. West teams and winning percentage as well (.733). It’s also the best record in the league vs. West teams this season.

Pop on Nash and last summer’s rumor about his interest in Nets job

Before the game, Gregg Popovich spoke to the job Steve Nash is doing and whether the rumor of him being interested in the Nets job was credible.

It was almost as if the Nets were happy to have the false rumor spread to cover what turned out to be shocking hire of the inexperienced Nash.

As Sponge Bob might say...

Per Will Hanley.

What’s next

The Nets have two games remaining in the regular season and will be back in action on Saturday, May 15 when the team hosts the Chicago Bulls. The time for the game has yet to be released.

For a different perspective on Wednesday’s game, check out Pounding The Rock - our sister site covering the San Antonio Spurs.