MINNEAPOLIS — Is the Beard back?
Maybe James Harden was sparked by the defense Friday night, or perhaps he was just unusually springy at San Antonio. But he says it’s something bigger.
The Nets star claims his long road back from a June hamstring injury is behind him, and an extended run of prime Harden is ahead of him.
“Yeah, I’m definitely back,” Harden said. “It’s just throughout the course of the year we had so much going on [with] our team. A lot of injuries and whatnot, and obviously the situation with Kyrie [Irving], so it’s really difficult to get a rhythm like we all want to.
“But we just got to continue to fight, continue to take one game at a time and push through it. Eventually this thing is going to come together where we’re all together and we all make a really, really huge run at this thing. But as of now we just continue to grow, young guys continue to get better, continue to teach and build every single game.”
Short of Irving getting vaccinated — and thus becoming eligible to play home games — the Nets couldn’t have gotten a much better building block. The sight of Harden looking physically explosive bodes well, starting Sunday against the Timberwolves.
After posting a terrible minus-26 in his prior two games, at Cleveland and Washington, and a minus-29 in his prior 11, Harden dominated with 37 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds against the Spurs. And the lasting image will be of him throwing down a highlight dunk over center Jakob Poeltl that had the Nets excited well after the game. As well it should have.
“Because they don’t think I can dunk no more,” Harden quipped. “I struggled last game and I kind of wanted to get back and play better, so it feels really good.”
Harden was a minus-18 at Cleveland on the first game of this trip, before committing eight turnovers at Washington in the second. But in the third he wasn’t just technically superior, but physically improved.
“I can’t speak for him, but he’s competitive. No one’s going to be perfect every night, so it’s understandable. But he definitely came in locked in, and he played great passing the ball, scoring the ball just doing everything,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, adding that dunk might’ve been the bounciest Harden has looked.
“Yeah. Other than that tip jam he had in Brooklyn. He looked focused. He’s a great, so he’s going to figure it out and get back on track. … He was just great.”
Much has been made about how Harden’s grade 2 hamstring strain just 43 seconds into the Eastern Conference semifinals last season against the Bucks — an injury he tried to hobble through in the final three games of that series — forced him to spend all summer rehabbing instead of playing pickup.
That slowed his first step just a hair, and likely lowered his vertical leap an inch or three. Harden had just five dunks all season coming into Friday.
Patty Mills thought the Nets’ improved defense helped Harden.
After the Nets blocked just a single shot in the second quarter, they blocked three in the third and held the Spurs to 32 percent shooting. They got out on the break, and Harden had 12 points in the quarter.
“The pace we played with offensively, I think [it helped],” Mills said. “He got into his groove, felt he can make an impact on the game, got into the paint.”
Irving said the truth is much simpler.
“I think he just finally made the decision: I’m going to come down the lane and punch it on somebody,” Irving said. “He was going against [Poeltl] and he was like, ‘I’ve got to go dunk that,’ and he came out in that third quarter and just took off.
“And that’s who he is, just playing off that aggression and just being himself. And it gets all of us hype just seeing him do those things. We know he’s capable of it and we just want to see him continue to do that.”
Make that need to see.