Injuries were always the biggest threat to the Nets’ Big 3. And another one surfaced Saturday, when James Harden lasted less than a minute into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal before hobbling off the court.
Harden hurt his right hamstring on his very first drive of the game against the Bucks, and he didn’t return. The Nets’ title hopes may rest on when Harden, their floor general and increasingly their locker-room leader, is able to return.
After kicking the ball out to Joe Harris in the corner, Harden immediately clutched at his right leg in clear discomfort. He didn’t even run to the locker room, but walked slowly as the air was sucked out of the worried sellout crowd of 15,750 at Barclays Center.
Nets coach Steve Nash quickly called timeout just 43 seconds into the contest, and summoned guard Bruce Brown off the bench. Then little-used Mike James even made an appearance seven minutes in.
There was no word from the Nets on the severity of Harden’s injury, or his status for Game 2, scheduled for Monday night at Barclays Center. Injuries and health have been the Nets’ Achilles’ heel, and could derail their goal of a championship run.
“Every year your plan is to win a championship. I think that’s every basketball players dream and mindset every single year,” Harden said before the game. “Obviously, in reality it is only a handful of teams that have an opportunity and we’re one of those teams this year.”
Many viewed the Nets-Bucks clash as befitting an NBA Final, and a chance for Harden to go a long way toward reversing the narrative of his playoff failures. After his teams have been eliminated six times by the eventual NBA champion, and twice more by teams that reached the Finals, this is Harden’s best shot at a ring.
“As you look at our roster we’re elite too. It’s going to be a showdown,” Harden said. “I’m more than confident going into this postseason just because obviously the roster and then our schemes and the things that we can control and the versatility that we have.”
Harden’s right hamstring caused him trouble during the regular season. He missed games on April 1 and 4 with tightness in the hamstring, before returning on April 5 against the rival Knicks. But he lasted just 4:22 in that Nets victory before he subbed himself out because of the hamstring. He subsequently missed a career-high 18 consecutive games before finally returning on May 12 against the Spurs, the third-to-last game of the regular season.
Injuries, absences and COVID-19 quarantines conspired to hold the Nets’ Big 3 to just 202 minutes together this entire regular season, spread over eight games, seven of them with all three starting. Granted, the Nets were 6-1 in those games, which tantalized fans with what Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could do now that they were all healthy for the playoffs.
“He just makes everybody better. You see me, the role I’m in, I’m thriving just because he’s making plays for me, and then I’m making plays for everybody else,” Brown said of Harden. “So really just makes everything easy out there on the floor for everybody out on the floor.”
It’s hard to overstate Harden’s importance to the Nets.
Since arriving in a midseason mega-trade with Houston, the Nets were 33-8 when Harden started, including their defeat of the Celtics in five games in the first round.
Harden torched the Celtics for 27.8 points, 10.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game, shooting .556 overall, .475 from 3-point range and .909 from the free-throw line. He came into the Eastern Conference semis as the only player in the postseason averaging 25 points and 10 assists, and has taken on a vital leadership role.
“He’s been a great leader for us and our most natural vocal leader. He definitely cares and can be confrontational with his teammates but in the right spirit and with the right heart,” Nash said. “He wants to see the team do well. He wants the group to grow. So, he’s been exceptional as far as his leadership and that’s an important part of our success and we need that from him.”
More than anything, what the Nets need from him is a healthy hamstring.