The transformation the Nets have undergone since their Jan. 14 trade for James Harden grows more remarkable by the game. Entering Friday night's game at Orlando, the Nets were 14-1 in their previous 15 games, tied for first in the Eastern Conference with the 76ers and riding a franchise-record eight-game road winning streak.
In his previous two games, Harden recorded his 10th and 11th triple-double performances in a mere 27 games as a Net. He capped Monday’s five-point win over the Nets at home by scoring their final 10 points, and he brought the Nets back from a 16-point deficit Wednesday at Indiana to pull out a narrow win by scoring 40 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out 15 assists.
Since Harden joined the Nets, they are 21-6 in the games he has played, which is tied with the Jazz for best in the NBA during that stretch. The Nets are also 14-3 in clutch games (defined as games in which there is a margin of five points or less in the final five minutes), which represents the most clutch wins in the NBA during that span.
Following the win over the Pacers, which was accomplished without Kyrie Irving as well as Kevin Durant, who has played only one of the past 15 games, coach Steve Nash was asked if anything Harden does surprises him anymore. "I’ll never take it for granted, but we’re getting used to it," Nash said. "Remarkable performance without Ky. He made some huge plays down the stretch, but overall, it was just such demands on James to deliver . . . All the other guys played their part, but James was the main guy as we’ve come to expect and we can’t take it for granted. Outstanding. Goes without saying pretty incredible performance from James."
Irving sat out the Indiana game with right groin soreness, but he was scheduled to return Friday night. The Nets are 12-2 when both Harden and Irving play with no Durant, so winning without Irving in the comeback fashion they did seemed a sign of the Nets’ growing resolve and toughness despite adversity.
"Obviously, we don’t want to get used to having KD and Kyrie out of the lineup, but if we do, then guys have to step up," Harden said. "We preach every night is going to be somebody different, so be ready and be prepared for the opportunity."
No one has been more prepared than Harden. The reigning three-time NBA scoring champion has focused primarily on playmaking and now is leading the league in assists. The way he has adjusted to being more of a playmaker with the Nets has put his name in the middle of the league MVP conversation.
"I’ve definitely never played with anybody like him," second-year center Nic Claxton marveled. "He just makes the game super easy, just playing off him and him getting to his spot so he can finish whenever he wants. He can pretty much do whatever he wants out there, and he’s an extremely, extremely smart basketball player. His IQ is just off the charts. So it’s fun to learn. I’m soaking in all the knowledge that I can."
Given how well the Nets have been playing, it’s hard to imagine how much better they will be when Durant returns from his injury and recent free-agent signee Blake Griffin is ready to join the mix. Jeff Green laughed at the thought.
"I don’t know how to answer that," he said. "Hopefully, keep winning. That’s the plan. I don’t see things changing. That’s adding two All-Star talents to our team, so I believe we just continue to get better."