Joe Harris stepping up for Nets amid James Harden injury

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With James Harden dealing with a hamstring injury, every other Net has had to pick up some of the slack. Joe Harris has stepped up, and stepped right into the Eastern Conference semifinal spotlight.

Between the expected shooting and some surprising defense, Harris has been so good that Blake Griffin proclaimed the Nets don’t just have a Big 3. More like a Fantastic 4.

“Joe, I don’t consider him [lesser]. He’s one of the four,” Griffin said of Harris, adding “It seems like every shot he shoots is going in.”

It’s obviously hyperbole, but it probably feels all too real to Milwaukee.

The Bucks can’t afford to have Harris play well alongside even two of Brooklyn’s Big 3. And they probably don’t have a path to victory if Harris keeps getting the better of All-Star Khris Middleton, as he did in the Nets’ Game 1 victory.

Harris entered Monday’s Game 2 third among all players this postseason in both 3-pointers (22) and 3-point percentage (.524), and fifth in plus-minus (+76). It’s by far his most extended playoff success.

Joe Harris
Corey Sipkin

Two years ago, Harris got shut down by the 76ers, and last year he started off hot but had to leave the Bubble after just two games because of a family emergency.

But this time he excelled against Boston in the first round. And when Harden went down just 43 seconds into the second game, and Brooklyn needed somebody to pick up some of that slack, Harris obliged.

“James is one of the best players in this league, but we’ve been in situations over the course of the regular season where we’ve been shorthanded, different lineups, different guys in and out,” Harris said. “The whole philosophy doesn’t necessarily change. Trying to play the right way, play for each other, compete at a high level at both ends and try to put it together for a full 48.”

Having to cycle through a team-record 38 different starting lineups has somewhat braced the Nets for this. Though the loss of Harden didn’t change Harris’ status as a starter, it has impacted his usage rate, who he guards, who he plays alongside, etc.

But at this point, he’s used to it.

“Yeah, definitely, because you never know what’s going to happen over the course of the playoffs,” Harris said. “You see it year after year where different people have huge impacts being able to come in. And it might be the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th guy on the roster and you just never know what’s going to happen, what sort of situation presents itself. I think it’s just about staying ready.”

When the Nets called on Harris in the wake of Harden’s injury, he was ready.

Harris scored 19 points on 7 of 11 shooting, and hit 5 of 9 from 3-point range. He came into Monday having made multiple 3s in all six playoff games.

“When you swing the ball and Joe Harris is wide open, you can basically just walk down to the other side of the court,” Mike James said.

It’s down on the other side of the court — the defensive end — that Harris has made arguably his most unexpected contribution. He spent most of Game 1 matched up on either Middleton or PJ Tucker, and outplayed both, underscored by a solid 98.7 Defensive Rating in Game 1.

Middleton is Milwaukee’s closer, averaging 20.4 points this season on 47.6 percent shooting — 41.4 percent from 3-point range. But he finished with just 13 on Saturday, held to 6 of 23 from the floor and missing all five of his attempts from deep.

The All-Star forward was left with a healthy respect for Harris.

“One of the differences is Joe has worked on his game a lot where he can put it down on the floor a couple of times for pull-ups or quick to the rim,” Middleton said. “He’s a strong finisher also. He’s not just a 3-point shooter. He’s a very, very good 3-point shooter, but he also can do a lot of other things on the court, which helps them out a lot.”

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