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James Harden heating up just in time for Nets

Nets guard James Harden gestures during the second

Nets guard James Harden gestures during the second half of an NBA game against the Pistons at Barclays Center on Sunday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

With each passing game of the young NBA season, James Harden is starting to look a whole lot more like James Harden, and that is extremely good news for the Nets’ hopes to pursue an NBA title.

Through the first five games, Harden looked slow and hesitant because he is coming back from a severe right hamstring strain that forced him to spend the summer in rehabilitation and limited his on-court activity. He also was coping with rule changes that say he can’t make a non-basketball move to draw contact. Coach Steve Nash even labeled him the "poster child" for the rule.

But on Friday, Harden scored 29 points in a win over the Pacers while going 16 of 19 at the foul line. On Sunday, he recorded his first triple-double of the season with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in the first three quarters of a blowout victory over the Pistons.

"I think he’s improving in all areas," Nash said of Harden. "I think his conditioning, his explosiveness, his confidence, his feel, his rhythm, everything is moving forward in the right direction."

Before beating the Pistons, Nash suggested Harden was focused too much on seeking out mismatches and needed to just play more on instinct. "I think my confidence and my rhythm and all that is coming back simultaneously together," Harden said. "I kind of knew I was going to have a slow start because I wasn’t playing a lot [in the offseason], but I knew the work was going to catch up and, ultimately, I was going to get back to where I need to be. Game by game, I’m just feeling better, more confident, extra pep in my step."

It all came to the fore moments after Kevin Durant was ejected for committing a flagrant 2 foul late in the third quarter against the Pistons, who cut their deficit to 13 points. Harden immediately orchestrated an 11-0 run in which he had the assist on all five Nets baskets to effectively close out the Pistons.

"I just feel more free," Harden said of his approach. "My body has allowed me to do things that it is used to doing. Earlier, I was relying on my IQ a lot, and I feel like now I’m just being aggressive, being assertive, whether it is getting to the basket, coming off the pick-and-roll, isolation and taking what the defense gives me. Don’t overthink the game. Just go out there and be myself."

Harden’s resurgence comes at a critical time as the Nets (4-3) have one more home game against the Hawks Wednesday night before taking a season-high six-game road trip.

Durant said Harden must maintain a balance in terms of knowing when to attack obvious mismatches and when to let the game come to him, but against the Pistons, Durant said it was good to see Harden get to all his spots and flourish at both ends of the floor.

"His body’s right, his mechanics were right and he was knocking down shots with ease," Durant said. "He was incredible. Just keep building, and I know he has that same mindset."

New York Sports