NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 25: James Harden #13 of the Brooklyn Nets dribbles during the second … [+]
When the Brooklyn Nets acquired James Harden two weeks ago in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets, the collective eyebrows of the basketball world raised.
There were questions abound: Was Harden too much of a ball hog to peacefully coexist with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? How would the three superstars share one ball? And who was going to play defense?
The Nets are still a work in progress with their new “Big 3,” but if anything, Harden has been too deferential in recent games and hasn’t been shooting the ball enough.
In his first six games with the Nets, his field goal attempts per game, isolations per game and usage percentage are all down significantly from his first six games of last season with the Rockets, according to ESPN.
Turns out, this has all been part of Harden’s master plan as he gets acclimated to his new team: he wants to be more of a facilitator and less of a ball-dominant guard, saving his scoring bursts for when he senses the team needs them the most, such as in the fourth quarter of the team’s 98-85 win over the Heat on Monday night.
After taking just six shots entering the fourth quarter, Harden made a step-back three-pointer, a driving layup, another three and a 17-foot pullup jumper as part of a 15-0 game-deciding run. He also drove the lane and penetrated on a play that ended with an Irving layup.
“Yes, that’s the best part of it,” said Harden, who finished with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting with eight assists and four rebounds. “I was in a role for eight years [in Houston], controlling the ball, dominating the ball. Now it’s a different experience for me but it’s still great.
“It’s still basketball at the end of the day and I’m lucky to be able to do more than one thing on the basketball court. So it’s fun, it’s a game within the game, you gotta pick and choose when to be aggressive, when to let your shooters get going, when to let KD and Kyrie get going. And once we get a rhythm and get a flow and start to feel each other out more, it’ll be a lot easier for us.”
Neither Durant, who shot 6-of-21 for 20 points, or Irving, who shot 6-of-17 for 16, were particularly hot in this game, and seemed fine with Harden taking the game over down the stretch after he had deferred for most of it.
“It does a lot for us,” Durant said. “We rely on him to make plays for us and just be himself, whatever the game presents you gotta be prepared for it. And I think tonight he came with that scoring effort late in the game and he also created stuff for us with his penetration.
“So any given night it could be anybody and tonight James was great for us.”
Harden is leading the NBA in assists at 10.8, with Luka Doncic the next closest at 9.9.
Meantime, he ranks 19th in scoring at 24.0 points per game, while Durant, coming back from Achilles surgery, is second behind Bradley Beal at 30.4, while Irving is averaging 28.1.
Harden has picked his spots while acclimating to the Nets, who are 11-8 overall and 4-2 since he came aboard.
When Irving return, Harden deferred and tried to get Kyrie involved more. Irving averaged 34.3 points on 56.5 percent shooting with 5.0 assists in his next three games playing alongside Harden. In Saturday’s 125-123 win over Miami, Irving was the man down the stretch, scoring 18 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter.
“Whoever had the ball in their hands late in the game, we trust that they’re going to make the right play,” Durant said. “It might be Ky next game, it might be me next game, I think that makes us unpredictable.”
Of Harden’s ability to sense what the team needs and respond accordingly, Durant said, “It’s like he transferred to a new school and he’s trying to figure out the curriculum.”
The Nets still rank 21st in the NBA in defensive efficiency but on Monday they only surrendered 85 points.
“Our defense won us this game for sure,” Durant said.
GM Sean Marks is still looking to alter the roster by adding a defensive-minded big like Norvel Pelle. The Nets have also been linked to Javale McGee.
So the Nets may look different in a month from now.
Offensively, Harden is still learning his teammates and figuring out how and when to defer and when to take games over. It’s a role he’s relishing compared to his time in Houston.
“I’m figuring it out, it’s only been five games and that’s what we have a long season for,” Harden said. “Once we all find that balance, our team will be way better.”