As it turned out, James Harden did not take long to figure out this whole New York thing. We are all suckers for an injured star surprising everyone by hobbling his way back into the playoffs, and back into our hearts.
Harden effectively played on one leg Tuesday night. He scored five points. He shot 1-for-10 from the field. He shot 0-for-8 from 3-point range.
And yet, out of his dreadful Game 5 box score, Harden still delivered one of the more inspiring performances in franchise history. If Kevin Durant’s amazing 49-point performance was the tangible in this stirring 114-108 comeback victory over Milwaukee, then Harden’s ability to play 46 minutes with an injured hamstring was the intangible edge Brooklyn needed to survive what could have been a fatal defeat.
Willis Reed, Game 7, Madison Square Garden, this was not. But after appearing out of left field, Harden deserved so much credit for his determination, for his willingness to put his body on the line and, perhaps, for correctly reading the room. All boroughs of the city forever appreciate athletes who are tough and resilient, which is why the regular-season Knicks made such a favorable impression on their fan base.
Harden wasn’t about to let Durant go it alone in the wake of Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury. His spirit was willing, but his hamstring was weak. He lacked lift on his jumper. He lacked any explosiveness in his cuts, his stops and starts, and moved deliberately about the court as if he knew one wrong move could lock up his leg all over again. Jrue Holiday, Pat Connaughton and Khris Middleton took turns hounding him on defense, playing him aggressively and without fear of a blow-by.
Harden couldn’t lift himself, so he lifted his team instead.
“James was the one driving this,” his head coach, Steve Nash, had said.
Harden appeared on the Barclays Center court an hour and 25 minutes before tipoff, took a seat on the bench, then hopped off and tried a reverse layup, a couple of free throws and a long series of 3-pointers and midrange pull-ups. His right leg was taped. He looked bouncy, and relatively healthy, before jogging back to the locker room.
Somehow, he contributed eight assists and six rebounds to the cause. New York won’t forget this effort. Brooklyn won’t forget this effort. As it relates to Harden’s career legacy — never mind the way he’d be treated around town for the rest of his life — that’s a very good thing.
On arrival, people around here didn’t quite know what to make of the bearded ball hog who grew up in California, played his college ball at Arizona State and spent his entire NBA career in the Western Conference until the Brooklyn Nets decided to go for it in January.
Until the Brooklyn Nets decided there was no good reason to have a Big 2 when it was possible to have a Big 3.
Harden had forced his way out of Houston with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, joining the superstars already in place, Durant and Irving, in pursuit of the NBA championship that has eluded him. He helped the Nets dispatch the Celtics in Round 1, before reaching for his right hamstring and bailing 43 seconds into Round 2.
It looked like he might be a conspicuous spectator for the balance of this Eastern Conference semifinal. But then Irving went down hard in Game 4, opening up new possibilities in Harden’s professional life. He had missed 18 straight regular-season games with his right hamstring injury, and it seemed plausible he’d miss more than four straight playoff games after hurting the same hamstring. In fact, the Nets listed him as out for Game 5 before Harden suddenly started rising up the board in the hours before tipoff, like a golfer on a birdie binge.
Out became Doubtful, and then Doubtful became Questionable. And then Questionable became You’re Damn Right I’m Playing.
The Nets were down 17 points in the third quarter, in part because Harden was not feeling himself. “James not being the James we know,” Nash said, “but wanting to help his teammates and soldier through it.”
The coaches kept telling the Nets to stick with it, to stay with the game until they found some cohesion. They found it. Harden made a couple of free throws late to give the Nets the lead, and more than once he waved to the crowd for more noise when Giannis Antetokounmpo was at the line.
He was fully engaged the entire night, even though the Nets’ quarterback looked like an immobile pocket passer under heavy pressure. James Harden knew his depleted team needed him out there, so he played hurt.
He scored five points to Durant’s 49 and was still the biggest winner of the night.