After suffering a blow to the face Tuesday night in Chicago, Kyrie Irving was to sit out when the Nets faced the Spurs in the second game of a back-to-back set Wednesday night at Barclays Center. But just in the nick of time, James Harden was declared probable to return following an 18-game absence to recover from a strained right hamstring.
The status report issued by the Nets Wednesday afternoon also omitted the names of Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin, meaning both were available even though they customarily don’t play both games of a back-to-back. It’s likely the Nets made an exception because coach Steve Nash wants the Nets’ top players to get experience together.
Since Irving didn't play, it means he, Durant and Harden still are stuck at having played only seven games together all season. The Spurs game was the first of a three-game homestand to end the regular season for the Nets (45-24), who entered the contest in second place in the Eastern Conference two games behind the 76ers and one game ahead of the Bucks.
So the final week is critical for the Nets in terms of playoff seeding, especially since the 76ers and Bucks both hold the season tiebreaker over them. Assuming Harden was cleared to return, it was unclear how much playing time he was slated to receive in his first game back in the lineup.
That meant backup point guard Mike James was likely to be called upon to play a larger role, as he did in Tuesday night’s victory over the Bulls. After Irving went down, James played virtually the entire fourth quarter and totaled 25 minutes for the game, scoring 11 points and contributing seven rebounds and six assists. He had a miserable 1-for-7 shooting night but was 8-for-8 at the foul line.
"They never told me I was going to finish the game," said James. "People kept subbing in and I just kept staying in. It’s a different approach because normally I try not to hold any energy back and just kind of pick up full-court [on defense] and push the pace. I’m like a 10 minutes-per-game guy, so that’s a big difference from 25 minutes."
Obviously, Nash liked what he saw from James because he stuck with an eight-man rotation after Irving left the game. "He was great," Nash said. "We had a little dry patch with that second unit, but I thought he weathered it and was able to get us a couple good looks, a couple free throws, a basket and some assists. I thought he had great energy, played hard defensively and pushed the ball in transition. So he made a few plays for us for sure, which was great."
James is nearing the end of his second 10-day contract, but it seems likely the Nets will sign him so that he is eligible for the playoffs. He played with CSKA Moscow earlier this season and has spent most of his career in Europe, where he was a volume scorer. But James has done a good job adapting to a complementary role with the Nets.
"My role’s a little bit different, and that’s kind of hurt me scoring-wise," James said. "We have so many different scorers, it’s made me a little tentative at times, which is probably horrible, but it’s a work in progress. The more I play and the more comfortable I get out there, I’ll play better.
"It’s not like I’m playing bad, but I just can’t make a shot in general. But I think Steve just wants me to be aggressive, push the pace and play defense. I’m just happy to be in the rotation right now and be able to play."