After a blockbuster trade ended his Rockets tenure and landed him with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, Harden, now 31, sought to make a different first impression in his Nets debut. Instead of opening the new era with a signature scoring outburst, Harden looked to share the ball early and often, perhaps hoping to endear himself to his new teammates and change the subject from his messy exit in Houston.
Harden finished with 32 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds in Brooklyn’s 122-115 home victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday night. The contest lacked the pomp and circumstance you would expect from a superstar’s midseason arrival. There were no fans at Barclays Center to greet him with a thunderous ovation; there was no national television broadcast to amplify the event; and there was no Irving, who is in quarantine after he violated the NBA’s coronavirus protocols by attending a birthday party without a mask.
Despite those challenges, Harden set to work repairing his reputation immediately: He dished a number of high-level assists in the first quarter, didn’t make his first basket until early in the second, and played with energy and focus on defense. He whipped passes to Durant, who finished with a season-high 42 points. He aggressively used high screens, looking for his big men when they rolled to the basket. And he fed sharpshooter Joe Harris for a first-half flurry.
“I’m a hooper,” Harden said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win. KD is just an elite, different type of basketball player, the way he’s able to score the basketball. It’s so easy for him, and I know that. I want to make it a little bit easier if I can. It was easy out there. I have so many dimensions to my game. I take whatever the defense gives me.”
If anything, Harden, whose disruptive and self-serving behavior over the past two months sparked plenty of criticism, was overly deferential. Early on, he tried to thread the ball through traffic rather than attack the hoop, accumulating nine turnovers by the end of the night. Harden adjusted in the fourth quarter, getting more aggressive and helping to put away the win from the free throw line.
“I had nine turnovers, and six or seven of them were looking to get guys lobs,” he said. “That’s me being unselfish.”
The triple-double debut was a reminder that Harden has long been one of the NBA’s top playmakers for his teammates. A three-time scoring champ, he led the league in assists in 2016-17 and has a deep bag of tricks. One of the biggest questions facing the new-look Nets is whether Harden can leave behind the ball-pounding, isolation-heavy style he became associated with late in his Rockets tenure in favor of a more free-flowing and balanced attack. Harden’s first game with the Nets could be read as a signal of his willingness to adjust and as evidence of his versatility.
Durant, Harden and Irving are all incredible scorers, but Harden is easily the most skilled and creative passer of the three. His first game included a jaw-dropping range of dimes: a behind-the-back toss to Jeff Green for a jumper at the top of the key, an over-the-shoulder pass to Harris for a layup, a lofted toss-ahead to Green for a flying finish, a well-paced find of a rolling Reggie Perry in traffic, and a drive-and-kick to Durant for a clutch three, among many others.
“Coach put [Harden] at the point,” Durant said. “I think that’s his natural position, to be honest.”
Indeed, the responsibility to keep everyone happy on offense will fall largely to Harden and new coach Steve Nash, and Saturday was a promising start on that front. Nash hailed his new star as a “brilliant” and “world-class” player with the potential to lead an offense where “everybody is a threat.”
Harden and Durant struck a natural chemistry in pick-and-roll scenarios, and defenses will need to decide whether to send help to stop their two-man game. When Orlando played Brooklyn’s stars straight up, Harden drew lots of attention and made quick reads, allowing Durant to feast on open looks and one-on-one attacks. Irving should enjoy the same opportunities when he returns, and Harden joked that it would be “scary hours” for opponents once the Nets’ star trio was fully assembled.
Skeptics will wonder if Harden will be able to stick to this new script or if he will return to his Houston habits as the season unfolds. Harden called himself “an elite scorer, an elite teammate, an elite leader” during his introductory news conference, a self-assessment that drew guffaws given that he showed up to training camp late and told reporters Tuesday that the Rockets were “not good enough” to compete for a title and that their situation “can’t be fixed.”
Previous marriages between Harden and Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook fell apart, in part because Harden eventually decided he preferred to play on his own terms. This version of Durant is easily the best teammate Harden has ever played with, and the two have a history that dates to three years together in Oklahoma City. Striking a balance between Harden and Irving could prove trickier, and both will need to sacrifice in ways they haven’t previously for Brooklyn to reach its full potential. And Durant, Harden and Irving will need to raise their games defensively to compensate for a thin front line.
The full Nets experience will be on display when Irving returns, possibly as early as Monday against the Milwaukee Bucks. Saturday’s win, then, should be remembered as a successful soft launch that left its polarizing protagonist beaming.
“It felt unbelievable,” Harden said. “Hopefully you can tell by my smile and my play.”