Nets guard James Harden walks on the court against the...

Nets guard James Harden walks on the court against the Celtics in the first half of an NBA game at Barclays Center on March 11. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When the Nets won their first season meeting with the Knicks on Jan. 13 at empty Madison Square Garden, it was a red-letter day — but not because Kevin Durant scored 26 points to pull out a hard-fought win over the team many projected him to join as a free agent in 2019.

No, that was the night news broke that the Nets were on the verge of completing a trade for James Harden to form a Big 3 with Durant and Kyrie Irving, who sat out that Knicks game for personal reasons.

Now Harden is set to face the Knicks for the first time as a Net alongside Irving on Monday night at Barclays Center. Durant will miss his 12th straight game with a hamstring strain, but the Nets (26-13) are the hottest team in the NBA with a 12-1 record in their past 13 games.

In their first two home games since the All-Star break, the Nets have had 1,374 and 1,364 live bodies in the building, so Harden is looking forward to his first taste of the fan rivalry in New York City. "I see even more excitement when we finally opened up and they were able to come see some actual live basketball," he said of the gradual re-opening of the NBA to fans.

"Obviously, we’re playing well and the Knicks are playing well. So that gives them more of a reason to come . . . I heard the crowd [Saturday night in a win over the Pistons]. It was exciting. I am anxious and can’t wait until we are able to let more fans in. I can’t wait for that day."

While the Nets are among the favorites to win the NBA title and have been on fire of late, that doesn’t necessarily make them the hottest team in New York, which long has been a Knicks town. The Knicks (20-19) are 9-4 in that same 13-game stretch. They have risen to playoff position at seventh in the Eastern Conference in their first season under coach Tom Thibodeau, and Julius Randle has developed into a first-time All-Star.

The Nets understand they will have their work cut out for them as they pit the NBA’s No. 1 offense against a young team that excels at the defensive end. "Obviously, the Knicks are playing great basketball together," DeAndre Jordan said. "Julius Randle is an All-Star for those guys. Thibs is doing a great job over there.

"We can’t get caught up in the New York rivalry thing. We’re just trying to come out there and win a basketball game against a tough opponent. We’re happy the game is at our place this time. We’re excited. It will be a grind-it-out game because we know how those guys play."

As it turns out, the Nets’ 100-95 win over a physical Pistons team that beat them just before their 12-1 streak began was good preparation for the Knicks. The Nets had one of their worst three-point shooting games of the season and found a way to win with defense.

"It’s going to be fun," Landry Shamet said of the Knicks game. "We played them at MSG, but I don’t think there were any fans there — definitely weren’t, actually. So it’ll be cool. My first experience with fans to get a feel for the rivalry and how the fans feel about it and how it feels to have some different energy in the building. I’m excited."

More Brooklyn Nets