James Harden has continued to make significant strides in his recovery from a strained right hamstring, but though the Nets do have the option to put him in cold storage until the playoffs, the team does believe it’s important to get him into at least one of the final three games, if possible.
Harden, who has missed 18 games with the injury and sat out Tuesday night against the Bulls, bounced back well from a physical day of practice Monday, Steve Nash said.
"He’s good, really good," Nash said. "I think he had good signs today…so all still really positive and hopefully we get a look at him before the end of the year."
But though Harden’s game IQ and superlative skill could tempt the Nets to sit him when they've already long clinched a playoff berth, they do want to do whatever they can to get the best possible version of the player that has carried their team for swaths of the season – especially as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant dealt with various absences. That means getting in a final tune up.
In 34 games this season, Harden has averaged 37.3 minutes, 25.4 points and 11.0 assists.
"Basketball is a game of rhythm," Nash said. "It's really important, I think, to feel in rhythm. And sometimes, that can be physical and mental. So, he can physically train as much as he wants, but until you get out there in a game and prove to yourself mentally that your rhythm is there -- or it's close to being there -- I can relate to that as a player. . . . In a vacuum, we might say, 'He's not playing 'til the playoffs.' But basketball is played on the floor and it's not just James Harden that jumps into a playoff game as James Harden."
Which means everyone might see Harden as soon as Wednesday, when the Nets take on the Spurs. The Nets could use him, too, since they’re still jostling with the Bucks for the second seed and home-court advantage in the second round. The Nets went into Tuesday with one game on the Bucks in the loss column, but with the Bucks holding the tiebreaker. They can finish no lower than third.
That being said, nothing is guaranteed – especially with so much on the line.
"I couldn’t put a percentage on it," Nash said. "It’s continually monitored in this situation. I think the idea is that he plays in one of these last three games, but it’s totally up to a number of factors and I couldn’t give you a straight answer right now, so we’ll see how the rest of the day goes, how tomorrow goes. We’ll also consider what happens with the team."
James, so far, has scrimmaged in practice, put in "consecutive high-intensity work modes" and has felt good, Nash said. The performance team will continue to evaluate him and conduct further medical scans. But one thing is certain: The Nets would far, far rather have him on the court than not.
"There are things that he needs individually and personally to feel confident and comfortable and to get reps," Nash said. "I think that is why we would take any sort of risk of him playing in one of these games, so he can find that rhythm and comfort because that's a big part of returning to play. . . . We could say, 'He's healthy enough to play. Play him.' And then there's the alternative of why would we risk it if we're going to need him in the playoffs? But I think the truth is somewhere in the middle and part of it is for the team to feel (his presence) and for him to feel the game again."
Brown in, but broken. Bruce Brown broke his nose during a collision in practice, Nash said, but donned a protective mask Tuesday and was available to play. "He’s a tough cookie so we’re not worried about him. Obviously it’s no fun, but he wants to play and is ready to play."