In a perfect world, James Harden would have had an arena full of boos when he was introduced at the Toyota Center Wednesday.
Then he would have gotten his hearty cheers during the tribute video — a brief respite meant to say thank you for everything he did when he was here, and what he’s still doing to help families affected by the snowstorm that disabled most of Texas two weeks ago. And he would have gone about his way, maybe a little disquieted by the negative response, but confident that he made a choice that put him in a better position for a championship.
It didn’t happen quite like that, of course. The 4,000 or so fans could only make so much noise, and the blowout win over the Rockets wasn’t quite a recipe for drama. But despite the changed narrative, it was still a 132-114 victory and a satisfying end to the first half of the Nets’ season — one that finished in second place to the 76ers in the Eastern Conference. It was also an extremely suitable way to tie up a great few weeks for Harden, who has more than proved that he can meld into this team and potentially set them up for greatness.
Harden scored 29 points with 14 assists and 10 rebounds, while Kyrie Irving added 24 points. John Wall led all scorers with 36 points, while Victor Oladipo had 33. The Nets had seven players score in double digits.
"I'm excited," Harden said. "We've been playing really, really good basketball . . . There were a lot of mixed emotions from the fans but I knew it was going to happen. I just wanted to come out and give them a show."
And Harden did loom appropriately large: Just Tuesday, he was named Eastern Conference player of the year, and on the same day, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said he was planning to retire his jersey at a later date. And despite eight turnovers Wednesday night — mostly in the first half and mostly, he said, a symptom of trying to do too much too early — he recorded his eighth triple-double as a Net.
"You could tell it meant something to him," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "This place is special to him. Houston means a lot to him — the city, the organization and what he accomplished here with this team. I know it was a big game for him. I was proud of him for the way he handled it."
The Nets went into the second quarter up by three and eventually built a 14-point lead on the back of a 9-0 run, capped by Nic Claxton’s putback with 5:38 left in the first half. It nearly seemed easy from there against the Rockets, who came into the game losing the last 14 games and had only eight players available.
The Nets went into the break up 67-54, and outscored the Rockets 32-18 in the paint in that span. The Nets also shot 59.5% from the floor in the first half, while holding the offensively challenged Rockets to 39.1%.
Claxton scored 12 of his 16 points off the bench in the second quarter, giving him double figures for the second straight game after scoring a career-high 17 against San Antonio Monday, while also providing an increasingly tantalizing option at center for the Nets, who’ve scrambled for size since trading Jarret Allen in the Harden deal. Claxton was playing in only his fifth game this season and his 20th game overall after being sidelined with right knee tendinopathy since last season. The Nets led by as many as 23 in the third quarter.
The Rockets eventually got to within eight on a 10-0 run in the fourth thanks to Wall’s 21-footer, which made it 105-97 with 7:55 left to go. But the duo that dominated the game reacted quickly: Harden hit a three 17 seconds later and Claxton followed with a putback with 7:13 to go.
It was Harden’s goodbye to the place he still loved .
"Hopefully, I did something right," in Houston, he said. "Obviously, I came short of a championship, but the work on and off the court that I put in over those past eight years was elite. I think that’s the only thing I didn’t do or didn’t accomplish, the championship, which is difficult to obtain, but you know, bringing excitement to the city, taking care of the fans on and off the court is something I try to contribute, so hopefully that outweighs that."