Joe Harris of the Nets reacts after a three-point basket during...

Joe Harris of the Nets reacts after a three-point basket during the fourth quarter against the Rockets at Barclays Center on Wednesday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

This is why James Harden wanted to leave

Sitting out with a tight hamstring for the final 18 minutes of the game, Harden was able to rely on his Nets teammates to pull out a 120-108 win over the Houston Rockets, his former team, at the Barclays Center on Wednesday night.

The win put the Nets alone in first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time this season. It gives them a one-half game lead over the Philadelphia 76ers, a team they have twice been tied with for first place this season.

Kyrie Irving took charge in Harden’s absence by scoring 31 points and dishing out a season-high 12 assists.

Joe Harris added 28 points, which included shooting 7-for-12 from three-point range. Harden, who forced a trade from the Rockets earlier in the year, finished the night with 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

"Anytime someone goes down it’s very concerning," Irving said when asked if he was concerned when he saw James go down.

"When they don’t play, you have to have that mentality that we are going to play at a very high level. We just have to adjust man."

The Nets (33-15) have dealt with a myriad injuries all season, but are so deep that they have found ways to win without their top scorers on the floor.

The Nets, who trailed by 18 in the first half, put together a pivotal run without Harden by scoring 12 straight points midway through the fourth quarter.

The run turned a six-point deficit into a 107-101 lead.

"They know, they know that it wasn’t good enough, tough enough, mentally we weren’t locked in" coach Steve Nash said of the first half.

"They took the challenge. They had pride and respect for each other and they went out and competed."

It’s hard to think of two franchises that have moved in a more polar direction this season than the Nets and the Rockets, who entered Wednesday night’s game with the second-worst record in the Western Conference after recently having ended a stretch where they lost 20 straight games.

The Rockets had both Russell Westbrook and James Harden on their team last November, meaning they had a chance of contending for a title.

Fast forward a little more than four months and Westbrook is off doing his triple-double thing in Washington and Harden has proven himself to been a key piece in the formation of the league’s shiniest new super team.

Still, Rockets general manager Rafael Stone said he doesn’t regret having traded Harden.

"I would for sure, 100%, do that deal again," Stone told ESPN.

He then added "literally no part of me regrets doing that deal."

You can bet no part of the Nets or Harden regrets the deal either.

Harden may have been out of shape and unhappy in Houston, but you could argue that Harden has been the best player in the league since he got to Brooklyn.

"I feel like I’m the MVP," Harden said after recording 44 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in Friday’s win over the Pistons.

An MVP on a very stacked team. Despite having suffered a myriad injuries and being without Kevin Durant for a good chunk of the season, the Nets have won 18 of their last 21 games and are 8-2 since the All-Star break.

Notes & quotes: Nash said they would monitor Harden’s hamstring, but did not think it was something serious . . . Landry Shamet (sprained right ankle) missed his fifth straight game.

With this being the first of a back-to-back set, it’s likely that he will also miss Thursday’s game against Charlotte.

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