Kyrie Irving made major headlines with his return to action Wednesday night, but it’s the return of another Brooklyn star that arguably makes for a bigger impact on this Nets season. James Harden did not look like himself for months, but after a slow ramp-up and hiatus due to health and safety protocols, he seems to have regained his step and stroke, even with a subpar performance against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night.
In recent games he’s looked like his past MVP self, propelling a hampered team to some crucial wins. What’s changed for Harden this season and what does it mean for Brooklyn?
To call Harden’s start to the year lacking would be short selling it. His first 26 games prior to his short absence, he averaged 20.8 points, 9.6 assists and 7.6 rebounds on 40.4% shooting from the field and 33.7% from deep. For reference, Harden did not average below 24 points since his sixth man days in Oklahoma City a decade ago, and both shooting percentages would be career lows.
There was also a disturbing lack of free throw attempts earlier on, which has slowly corrected itself with each passing month. Harden recorded just one game with 10+ attempts in his first 12 outings after averaging that volume over multiple seasons.
While his overall production and three-point shooting don’t paint too rough a picture, those that watched Harden compete saw a lot off with the star southpaw. His initial bursts and step-backs had no explosion behind them, while his defense regressed back into meme territory. He was an inconsistent threat to opponents and sloppy with the ball.
However since coming back from health and safety protocols on Christmas against the Lakers, things changed. Harden was almost forced to step up with lead man Kevin Durant out for this game and the following, and step up he did.
Harden put up a 36-point triple-double on Christmas, playing 38 minutes, getting to the line 17 times and topping an LA team led by LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. He continued tearing up Staples Center two nights after against the Clippers, when he scored 39 on scintillating shooting – 60% from the field and 44% from three – and dished 15 assists, also in a win.
Durant returned the following game but Harden didn’t slow down. He put up another couple 30 bombs, making it four in a week’s time after he only had three such games prior. Harden’s begun averaging 40 minutes per game and putting up stronger numbers doing it.
To compare, Harden assisted on 41.4% of his teammate’s shots and turned it over on 13.3% of his possessions in his last six appearances prior to Friday against Milwaukee, compared to 39.1% and 21.8%, respectively, in the 26 games before. His shooting efficiency is marginally improved, aided by much of his bounce and aggressiveness returning.
Harden’s taken significantly more attempts right at the rim in recent games as opposed to the beginning of the year. He’s had four 10+ free throw attempt games since Christmas, a result of this driving tenacity.
While we’re still not quite at peak Harden, this improvement is nothing to scoff at, and those two wins in Los Angeles broke up a potential six-game losing streak. After seemingly having to carry the team single-handedly, Durant has his co-star back, restoring much of what made the Nets so threatening.
There’s no reason to think Harden can’t keep climbing from here. Factoring that in with Irving returning to the rotation, the assured Finals trip looks somewhat back on track. Brooklyn has still yet to impose its will on any of the league’s top tier teams, but they have a much better chance with Harden playing like this.
This league is about stars, and for most of the year it felt as if the Nets were playing with 1.5 of theirs. Harden returning to form is pivotal to their championship hopes, and these past couple weeks are a huge start.