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James Harden on his role with Nets: 'I'm trying to figure it out'

Nets guard James Harden looks on against the

Nets guard James Harden looks on against the Phoenix Suns in the second half of an NBA game at Barclays Center on Saturday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

James Harden sat in the Barclays Center interview room Saturday night, looking very much unlike a man who had notched his fourth triple-double in 20 games.

Instead, he appeared pensive and puzzled, and for good reason: 12 points, 14 assists and 13 rebounds, sure. But to go with that, he had seven turnovers and shot 4-for-15, including 0-for-6 from the perimeter. The Nets, who dropped the game to the streaking Suns, 113-107, were outplayed throughout, and their ad hoc point guard was left wondering how exactly he should evolve in a world without Kyrie Irving.

"Honestly, I’m trying to figure all that out right now," Harden said. "I’m trying to figure it out. I’m trying to figure out when to score, when to be a playmaker, when to run offense, when to do a little bit of everything. Just trying to figure it out. It’s been a little difficult especially since, from whatever, but it’s been a little difficult but I’m just trying to figure it out."

The "whatever" in this case is likely Irving’s absence, which will probably continue until state vaccine mandates lift or he decides to get vaccinated against COVID-19. All of which means Harden, who three times was the top scorer in the NBA, has moved to facilitating. It works in some respects — he’s behind only Chris Paul in assists — but it hurts in others, like on Saturday, when his shooting went cold. And thanks to new NBA rules that make it more difficult to draw a foul on three-point attempts, even that part of his game has been hindered.

But though Saturday was one of his worst games of the season, it’s not exactly his fault, either. The Nets, Steve Nash said, are still looking for their identity as they learn to adapt to their different moving parts. That has to include Harden, who’s had to adapt more than most.

"It was a tough night for him," Nash said. He had "some turnover issues, and didn’t get a lot of good looks. But that’s a part of our growth, too, is trying to figure out ways for him to be effective even if he’s not getting to the rim all night. Can he draw a crowd and get off it and generate offense on the second side? And, as you see, he still can rebound and make plays for others, but can we take advantage of those nights where he gets into the paint and it’s not all-or-nothing on him? He can move it out and we can continue to play on the second side. I think that’s a part of our growth."

Growing does mean growing pains, but, DeAndre’ Bembry said, Harden is "the last thing we’re worried about." Even if he’s only averaging 20.3 points this season, his lowest in 10 years.

Kevin Durant added that he’s confident that once things settle — and they will settle — the Nets and Harden will be able to fully take advantage of his versatility.

"I just think we can do both," he said when asked if the Nets can best work around Harden the Scorer or Harden the Facilitator. "We can play around both sides, both variations of James — scoring and facilitating. So, 14 assists, 13 rebounds, we’re going to need that. We definitely [want him] to shoot the ball better, but I like his aggressiveness."

G League move. The Nets assigned Day’Ron Sharpe to the Long Island Nets Sunday.

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