The long wait for James Harden to return after an 18-game absence to recover from a strained right hamstring ended in perfect fashion as he finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists in 26 minutes, hitting the final six of his eight shots to lead the Nets to a 128-116 victory over the Spurs Wednesday night at Barclays Center.
"Man, this is the longest I’ve been without playing basketball," Harden said after the game. "So I didn’t know [what to expect], especially coming off the bench, not playing the first quarter, having to stay warm and do all the things necessary to go out there and be my best. I just have to go out there and play with confidence and do what I do and not think about anything. It took me a little bit, but it’s just basketball at the end of the day and something that I love doing."
Harden took a short breather at the end of the third quarter but returned at the 10:43 mark with the Nets in front by 16. That meant Kevin Durant and Harden were paired for the finishing stretch, and they drew plenty of defensive attention that freed Nic Claxton to score nine points as the Nets’ lead grew to a high of 108-89 on a dunk by Durant at the 7:56 mark.
The Spurs put together an 11-3 surge including three consecutive conventional three-point plays to cut their deficit to 111-100 with 5:32 left but got no closer.
It was Landry Shamet who actually led eight Nets (46-24) in double figures with 21 points, including a 5-for-7 effort from three-point range, Claxton had 18, Jeff Green totaled 16, Durant had 14 and Bruce Brown had 14 and 11 boards. DeMar DeRozan topped the Spurs (33-36) with 21 points.
Just as happened when Durant returned from an extended layoff for his hamstring injury, Harden was not in the starting lineup and was on a minutes restriction. He did not enter the game until 8:06 remained in the second quarter.
Because Joe Harris (sore hip) also was out of the game along with Kyrie Irving (facial contusion), the Nets wound up going with their franchise-record 35th different starting lineup, an odd cast that paired big men Durant and Blake Griffin with what amounted to a three-guard combination of Mike James, Shamet and Brown.
The Nets took a 15-point first-quarter lead, but Spurs opened the second period with an extended 20-6 run to cut the Nets’ lead to 41-40. After shooting 65.2% in the opening period, the Nets opened the second quarter with a poor 1-for-8 effort plus two turnovers during the Spurs’ big run.
The Nets pushed their lead back to 57-51 at halftime, but they shot only 35.0% in the period after their torrid start. Harden had just two foul shots and missed the only two field-goal attempts he put up in the final minute of the half. He was content to facilitate with three assists, but Harden seemed tentative compared to the player who normally goes aggressively to the basket. That changed in the second half when Harden scored 16 points on 6-for-6 shooting.
"I had to get used to the game again," Harden said with a laugh about his slow start. "Basically, I have been rehabbing and locked away for a month. It felt good. You see eight guys in double figures. That’s Brooklyn Nets basketball. It’s good to see."
Coach Steve Nash was thrilled by Harden’s return. Asked if it might be possible for the Big 3 to play at least one of the final two games together, Nash said, "I think it’d be great if we can get everyone on the court together. If we do have that luxury, that’d be great. It won’t be a lot, it won’t be enough, but it’ll be something."