Fatigue, hand strain some reasons for James Harden’s Nets struggles

SALT LAKE CITY — The Nets claim James Harden’s dip in form was about fatigue, not injury. But whether it’s his legs or his hand or his head, they need to get it figured out and get it fixed.

Since returning from a strained right hand, Harden has followed a poor shooting effort with an even worse one. And with shorthanded Brooklyn bringing a six-game skid into Friday’s tilt against the Jazz — and Kyrie Irving set to be ineligible again once they return home — they need MVP Harden, not MIA Harden.

“I thought James looked tired. He didn’t have his legs [in Wednesday’s loss in Sacramento]. It was one of those nights,” said Steve Nash. When asked if Harden’s hand was still nagging him, Nash replied “I don’t know, but he hasn’t mentioned the hand to me.”

Harden suffered the hand injury a couple of weeks ago and simply played through it. But he aggravated it lifting and shooting at last Friday’s practice, turning nothing into something.

The Nets departed for California, and Harden woke up in San Francisco Saturday with pain and unable to move his hand. He missed only one game, the loss at Golden State that night. But since rejoining the lineup, he hasn’t looked himself, with one Eastern scout noting a lack of defensive engagement.

James Harden
NBAE via Getty Images

After the Nets shut down any talk of dealing Harden for Ben Simmons or anybody else by next Thursday’s trade deadline, the All-Star guard shot 6-for-19 overall in Tuesday’s loss at Phoenix. And they would’ve killed for that performance a night later against the sorry Kings, when he had just four points on 2-for-11 shooting, missing all five attempts from deep.

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It was Harden’s lowest-scoring game in which he logged at least 30 minutes since 2014. He compounded it by committing a half-dozen turnovers, getting hit with a technical after the last one, and finishing a wretched minus-21.

“It’s just the reality that when you come out, some guys aren’t going to have the same legs they had the night before,” Irving said.

It’s hard not to notice Harden and Irving have lacked the same chemistry they had last season. And with Kevin Durant and Joe Harris likely out until after the All-Star break — and their NBA-long six-game skid their worst since dropping seven straight from Dec. 26, 2019-Jan. 7, 2020 — they need their stars on the same page.

Harden insists he never thinks about the Big 3’s lack of time together, while Irving admits he ponders it daily. Harden says they’ve done too much talking, while Irving says it’s a necessary part of their growth. But most important is on the court.

While the Big 3 was rarely together last season, the Nets did go an impressive 16-3 when Harden and Irving started together without Durant. But this year they haven’t been able to replicate that same magic, just 2-4.

And while the Big 3 is plus-15 in 32 minutes together this season, Harden and Irving are a minus-12 in their 172 minutes together without Durant.

Kyrie Irving and James Harden haven't been able to build chemistry this season.
Kyrie Irving and James Harden haven’t been able to build chemistry this season.

Why have they been so wildly inconstant?

“You know just as good as I do,” said Harden. “You know we’ve just got a lot of different things internally, lineups, and we haven’t had no continuity yet.”

Brooklyn is 24-12 with Durant, but just 5-10 without him. And the unvaccinated Irving is still ineligible to play in New York, meaning unless something changes he’ll play at most eight games after the All-Star break.

When asked if Irving’s part-time status and Durant’s injury have pushed Brooklyn to a breaking point, Harden replied, “I don’t know. I know we’re on a six-game losing streak. I do know that.”

Harden may not have any idea about breaking points, he’s pretty sure a team meeting isn’t the answer.

“No, I think we’ve done too much talking. We’ve got to go out there and do it, and do it consistently. We have times where we’re great, then we have times where we’re really bad. And you’ve just got to find some consistency throughout the course of the game,” said Harden, who has tried to verbally lead. “I’ve been talking a lot. That’s all I do is talk.”

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