The question to James Harden was whether he "surprised" himself that he returned from an 18-game layoff so seamlessly to score 18 points, grab seven rebounds and pass out 11 assists to lead the Nets to victory over the Spurs Wednesday night at Barclays Center. Not even his trademark bushy beard could camouflage the smile that lit up Harden’s face.
"Not to brag or anything, but I’m really good at this game," Harden said. "I study the game, I’m very unselfish…I don’t try to do anything I can’t do or anything that doesn’t benefit our team. That mindset keeps me in a really good place."
There simply is no mistaking the profound impact Harden has made on the bottom line since joining the Nets (46-24) in a Jan. 14 trade. They are 28-7 when Harden plays. He sat out the first quarter because but he played 26 of the final 32 minutes and helped eight Nets score in double figures as they topped the 30-assist mark for a franchise-record 26th time this season
Since joining the Nets, Harden has emphasized his impact as a playmaker, and that was apparent against the Spurs. Kevin Durant scored only 14 points while drawing constant double-team coverage and Kyrie Irving (facial contusion) sat out, but the ball movement led to tons of open shots.
"I know I can score with the basketball, but I take pride in letting guys be involved in the offense," Harden said. "I want everybody to get their shots whether they’re close to the rim or three-point shots or just get an opportunity to get a shot.
"Obviously, Kevin and Ky get their shots however they want. But my job is to get everybody else on this roster easy opportunities. It’s something that we still continue to work on and these next two days that we have between games and the week after our last regular-season game is very vital to our success in the sense of getting on the same page."
No one benefitted more from Harden’s return than backup center Nic Claxton, who developed a special chemistry with Harden prior to his injury and picked up where he left off with 18 points against the Spurs.
"Honestly, it was beautiful playing with James again," Claxton said. "It opened things up for everybody. Just his vision. It makes the game easier for everybody, so we’re excited to have him back."
The Nets have played only seven games with the Big 3 on the floor together, but it’s possible they will get one more chance in the final two games against the Bulls on Saturday and the Cavaliers on Sunday.
Describing how the game opened up with Harden and Durant drawing the Spurs’ defense, Bruce Brown said, "When you have two great scorers like that, they’re going to draw all the attention. When Kyrie comes back, it’s going to be the same thing…We’re going to get easy buckets, so we’ve just got to continue to make them and make the defense pay."
Notes and quotes: The Nets on Thursday announced the signing of backup point guard Mike James for the remainder of the season. He has appeared in 11 games, averaging 7.1 points, 2.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 17.5 minutes per games since leaving CSKA Moscow in Europe earlier this season.