James Harden went from a courageous inspiration in his first game back in Game 5 to a courageous sniper Thursday.
But it was all for naught as the Nets needed superstar Harden to beat the Bucks in Game 6. Harden scored 16 points with seven assists, four steals and five rebounds in a 104-89 loss in the Eastern Conference semifinal series. “The Beard’’ is going to have to test his hamstring again Saturday in Game 7 at Barclays Center.
Even a Harden at 50 percent is good enough to rack up a solid line in the playoffs, but this time his presence didn’t spark the club emotionally like it did in Game 5, when he suited up in a shocker despite his ailing hamstring.
Certainly, Harden picked his spots and was still moved gingerly at times, but he didn’t look like a shell of himself, either. Perhaps that’s a bright spot for Game 7, as he played 40 minutes Thursday. That’s 85 in two games.
“He made some shots,’’ Nets coach Steve Nash said. “He did some things. He had steals, assists. He was better tonight but it’s tough. He’s really limited. He can’t do a lot of things he’s accustomed to doing. It doesn’t appear he has any setbacks. If anything he played a little better. But a tough, tough positon for James trying his best but not being able to do what he normally does.’’
Harden scored 14 points in the first half after being shut out in the first half of his Game 5 return. That led the Nets in scoring. He was 3 of 4 from 3-point range after going 0-for-8 on Tuesday, shaking off the rust.
He also hit a driving floater and executed a give-and-go with Joe Harris, accepting a pass in the lane for a layup. He was hardly going full tilt, though, as evidenced when he picked the pocket of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Instead of speeding in for a transition layup, he held back and walked the ball up the court.
“James is not going to sit out,’’ Nash said beforehand. “That’s just what it is. It’s most important in our eyes is if he can remain healthy. It’s really difficult to say much more. He’s a soldier and fighter and wants to be out here. Is it ideal for him? No.’’
Nash said it’s difficult for Harden to go full out without reinjuring the hamstring.
“You’re scared for him,’’ Nash admitted. “You don’t want him get another injury, a longtime injury, a recurrence. But you respect the heck out of him. He wants to play and lay it on the line for teammates even when he’s not 100 percent.’’
Harden strained his hamstring 43 seconds into the series, came out of the contest and missed the next three games. Now he’s running the show while Kyrie Irving mends. Irving didn’t even make the trip so he can rehab his sprained ankle caused by Antetokounmpo’s undercut on his layup attempt in Game 4.
Nash said the Nets’ poor start in Game 5, when they fell behind 17 points, was due to adjusting to the new, limited Harden. However, the Nets got off to a terrible start again Thursday, falling into a 18-5 hole, mostly because Antetokounmpo was too good.
Antetokounmpo was completely in command and attacking and dishing to his partner Khris Middleton. He seemed more fluid and explosive in swooping to the hoop with his long strides and finishing.
Neither Harden nor Kevin Durant could keep up as Antetokounmpo keyed a 14-0 game-busting run in the fourth quarter with his fast-break brilliance.