When the Nets went from struggling to super-team upon the arrival of James Harden, some opined he had saved their season.
The star, though still not himself in the wake of hamstring tightness, may have to do just that in Saturday’s do-or-die Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bucks.
After his right hamstring tightened up just 43 seconds into Game 1 of the series, Harden essentially missed the first four games. He was practically immobile in his Game 5 return, and though he was better in Game 6, he was not good enough.
Harden doesn’t have to match Kevin Durant’s Game 5 masterpiece, or be 100 percent of his usual self. But with Kyrie Irving out with a sprained ankle, Harden’s hamstring will have to be better than it has been so far against the Bucks. And he’s confident it will be.
“That’s the plan,” said Harden, adding the problem isn’t inactivity, but loss of mobility and agility. Recovering those takes time, which the Nets don’t have.
Unless they can buy some with a Game 7 win.
“It’s not even about rust, it’s about being able to move,” Harden said. “As I go day-by-day, continue to get better. The last game, Game 5, was the first day that I did any movement like that since I got hurt. So [Game 6] was no different, you know? I’m out there to do whatever it takes to win. I’ve got to be better on both end of the ball, which I will be in Game 7.”
Harden’s limitations played a big role in the Nets being outscored 26-4 in transition Thursday. He struggled getting back against the likes of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, and on the other end he couldn’t run the fast break the way he normally does. That may well be the case again Saturday.
“That’s certainly a part of it. There was plenty of really clear opportunities where he put the brakes on and had to manage himself and protect himself,” coach Steve Nash said. “So that’s definitely a part of this puzzle for us, is that James is not at 100 percent.
“He’s got to protect himself, so that’s going to limit some of our options and some of the things that we do well. James is so talented, he can do so many things on the basketball court. But that’s is one area that he’s not going to be able to do. He’s not going to be able to push the ball in transition.”
The Nets had a fast-break opportunity Thursday, only to have Harden downshift gears, likely for understandable self-preservation.
“We’re not expecting too much from him movement-wise,” Durant said. “But he’s going out there and giving it his all and we respect that.”
Harden being slowed exacerbated the situation when the Nets went big with Joe Harris at off-guard and Jeff Green and Blake Griffin in a two-big lineup. Their lack of foot speed became an Achilles’ heel.
Since Harden is clearly going to play, it remains to be seen if they would turn back to defensive guard Bruce Brown, as they did in Game 5.
“We can make adjustments. We definitely can improve on the things we did. We were able to do it in Game 5. There’s solutions to be made, there are adjustments we can have,” Nash said.
“This is what it is. This is the deck we have. We’re gonna solve as many puzzles as we can and we’re also going to try and play our hearts out.”