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James Harden just let it happen. Joe Harris was living the catch-and-shoot guy’s dream, raining down 3s on the Celtics, and Harden was more than happy to feed him and watch in awe like everyone else.
It’s one thing to let Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving go off in a playoff game. It’s quite another, as a superstar, to help Joe Harris score 22 first-half points against the Celtics by taking the postseason shots designed for bigger names to take.
Brooklyn embarrassed Boston in Game 2, and Harden’s 20 points in 27 minutes had little impact on the result. It was the tone he set as the primary ball-handler that made a difference, as the Nets ran a ball-movement clinic that would have made Red Auerbach proud. Once regarded as the patron saint of the self-absorbed, iso-obsessed player, Harden has suddenly evolved into a quarterback who scans the secondary, runs through his progressions, and eagerly distributes the ball to the open receiver.
If he keeps playing basketball this wisely and this unselfishly, the Nets are going to win the whole thing.
“He can organize and make beautiful passes, but also simple passes that catch the defense off guard,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “That’s his role on our team to playmake, to orchestrate, to get guys opportunities.”
At the start of these playoffs, when Celtics coach Brad Stevens made these Nets out to be, well, the ’86 Celtics, it seemed only two things — injury and ego — could derail Brooklyn’s bid for a championship. The Nets’ superstars have to stay healthy, and they have to stay humble. The health part is out of their control, but the humble part is not.
Believe it or not, Houston’s former franchise player has been a study in relative humility. The Nets took 26 shots in the first quarter, including none from Harden. The Nets scored 40 points in that quarter, including none from Harden. He did contribute 10 points in the second quarter, if only to remind people that he’s still capable of putting the ball in the basket. But it was his five assists and his floor generalship in a 71-point first half — heck, his floor generalship over his entire stay in Brooklyn — that has to make a Nets fan feel pretty damn good.
“It’s not about scoring for me,” Harden said. “It’s about doing everything else. Ultimately we got the win so that’s all that matters. Joe had it going tonight, we all knew that. … Whatever it takes to win, we’re willing to do.”
Before he got a chance to coach him, Nash said he knew James Harden, the player. Everyone knew James Harden, the player. The ball-stopping, ankle-breaking, step-back-shooting machine.
“I didn’t know the person,” Nash said.
Who really knew the person behind that beard of his? Or, better yet, who really wanted to? Before this series started, Harden acknowledged that “there’s always like a negative narrative when it comes to my name.”
He did have those noisy breakups with Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook and, ultimately the city of Houston, after leading its basketball team to eight straight playoff trips without a trip to the NBA Finals. On the other hand, in Brooklyn, Harden has been willing to be the Big 3’s third wheel like he was in Game 1.
Durant took 25 shots and scored 32 points that night. Irving took 20 shots and scored 29.
Harden took 13 shots and settled for 21. He was also good for eight assists, seven more than Irving’s total. That box score stands as another example why the Nets are 31-7 (including Games 1 and 2) when Harden has played, and 12-11 when he hasn’t.
“That’s been unbelievable, the type of leader he is,” the Nets coach said.
Long before he called the Rockets’ situation “crazy” and beyond repair, Harden was known as a diva with a league MVP and three straight scoring titles to his name. His arrival could have sent a whole lot of intra-office relationships tumbling sideways.
Instead Harden, of all people, acted as a calming influence on a franchise burdened by win-or-else stakes. He averaged 16.6 field-goal attempts with Brooklyn, his lowest number since 2014. He averaged 10.9 assists with Brooklyn, the second-best passing performance of his career. (Harden led the league in assists four years ago at 11.2.)
“I don’t need to compete with [Durant and Irving],” he had said. “My job is to make their lives a little bit easier, and if I can do that, then I’m doing my job.”
And doing it better than anyone could have hoped. If James Harden is this James Harden for the rest of the playoffs, the Nets are going to be the last men standing in July.
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