James Harden #13 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts after a...

James Harden #13 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts after a basket against the Portland Trail Blazers during the third quarter at Moda Center on March 23, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Credit: Getty Images/Steph Chambers

On Tuesday night in Portland, James Harden was able to play through the pain of a recent neck injury that resulted from a blow to the head last Sunday against the Wizards. But after leading the Nets to a win over the Trail Blazers, the pain on the day after apparently was not worth the risk of aggravating the injury

Harden was ruled out of the Nets’ game against the NBA-best Jazz Wednesday night at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City. It marked just the second time since Harden was acquired by the Nets that he sat out a game. They have gone 23-7 in the 30 games he has played, and Harden is leading the NBA in both assists (11.2) and minutes played (38.0) while averaging 25.3 points and 7.9 rebounds.

On Tuesday in Portland, Harden described himself as "very close" to sitting out. But after leading the Nets to a tough-minded 116-112 win over the Blazers at Moda Center, he said, "No excuses. I tried to fight. My team needs me. I just try to go out there and do my best, and hopefully, that was good enough."

It certainly was. Even though Harden scored zero fourth-quarter points on 0-for-6 shooting, he still managed five assists, three rebounds and orchestrated the offense for a group of primarily reserves who scored 18 of the Nets’ 24 points while holding the Blazers to 21 points. For the game, he totaled 25 points and tied his career high with 17 assists.

Unfortunately for the Nets (30-14), Harden was unable to go in the back-to-back at Utah (31-11). "Throughout the course of my career, I don’t really like \[to miss games\]," Harden said after the Portland game. "I love to hoop. I love to be out there and taking on the challenge of finding ways to win games.

"I try to find a way to make an impact if I am able to . . . I love to be out there and be there for my teammates. I feel like, if I’m on the court, my teammates have a better chance of winning. That’s just my mindset. When I wake up, if I feel like I can go, I’m going to go. It’s just that simple."

Over the course of his 12-season career, the 871 games Harden has played are the most of anyone in that same time frame. It’s a point of personal pride for him.

"That’s just how I’m built," Harden said. "If this thing was to be done tomorrow and I wasn’t able to play basketball anymore, I know that I gave it everything I had. I didn’t short-cut myself.

"I enjoy the grind, the legs a little tired, not feeling so well and going out there and just finding a way to win a game. Tonight, I felt like was one of those examples."

The way Harden found against the Blazers was to resist the temptation to get into a three-point shooting contest and rather go inside and help the Nets to dominate points in the paint, 64-28. Joe Harris said it wasn’t a conscious strategy but rather a result of Harden’s feel for the game.

"You’ve got to take the game, the defense, whatever they’re giving you," Harden said. "My shot wasn’t falling in particular, but we just want to get our shots, open shots.

"I just tried putting pressure on the rim as far as me driving and getting our bigs or whoever was in that pocket some shots. They did a good job of corralling me and forcing me into positions where I had to give the ball up, but credit to my teammates. They made the right play and finished the possession."

Credit to Harden for making it work.

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