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James Harden not his usual unstoppable self this season

James Harden #13 of the Nets controls the

James Harden #13 of the Nets controls the ball in the first half against the Miami Heat at Barclays Center on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

James Harden wants you to know that this is not easy for him, either.

Harden has had five underwhelming games this season as he attempts to come back from the first serious injury of his career. For the fifth straight time, Harden failed to score 20 points Wednesday night as the Nets couldn’t come up with enough offense or rebounds and lost, 106-93, to a physical Miami Heat team.

Harden suffered a Grade 2 tear of his right hamstring on three occasions last season. The repeated injury caused him to miss all but three of the Nets’ final 24 games and limited him to just the final three games of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Now the three-time NBA scoring champ is struggling to find his form after spending the entire offseason rehabbing the hamstring.

"It’s getting better every game," Harden said after scoring 14 points, shooting 4-for-12. "As much as I want to kick back and just get 30, 40 points, I can’t do that. As much as I want to, as much as I would love to, I had no opportunities to play pickup or nothing this summer . . . This is my fifth or sixth game of just trying to play with competition or play against someone else.

"As much as I want to rush the process and be back to hooping and killing, it’s like I gotta take the time. This will make me stronger at the end of the season. So I have to embrace moments like this and things like this and I keep pushing through it."

The good news is Harden showed a brief but impressive glimmer Wednesday night of being the unstoppable offensive force that he has been for most of his career.

Harden put together the kind of magnificent quarter he used to rip off on a regular basis. After going 0-for-3 in the first period, he exploded for 11 points in just over two minutes in the second quarter to dig his team out of a 12-point hole.

"I think James is showing signs of getting his rhythm back," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "He had some incredible stretches tonight to build on."

He made jumpers. He landed driving dunks. He brought the Barclays Center crowd to its feet when he hit a step-back three, was fouled by Duncan Robinson and then made his free throw for a four-point play.

It was exactly the sort of performance Nets fans want to see on a regular basis. They may have the best player in the game in Kevin Durant, but he can’t carry them on a nightly basis.

Harden has yet to shoot 50% from the field in any game this season. Granted, part of the problem is that the league’s new rules make it harder for players like Harden to draw a shooting foul. But rule changes can’t be the only reason he averaged 17.3 points, 4.8 turnovers and shot 36.4% in his first four games.

Harden has long been regarded as one of the most durable superstars in the game. Most of his previous injuries have been relatively minor, although he did suffer an ugly concussion in 2012 when Metta World Peace elbowed him in the head.

Harden, 32, has been able to push his body to the max and bounce back quickly. Now, for the first time in his career, he has had to deal with his body healing while not being on the schedule he would like it to be on.

He admits it has been a mental challenge.

"In my career I’ve been blessed not to have surgeries and whatnot," he said. "That whole process last year was frustrating and draining. I love to hoop. If it wasn’t for the money, I would still be hooping.

"It was frustrating and draining for me to know I couldn’t be myself and be out there on the floor and be the player I am. I’m slowly getting it back. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication and it’s gonna happen. But you have to continue to keep fighting for it and I will."

Nash thinks it’s just a matter of time.

"He is an excellent player even if he’s not at his peak form," Nash said earlier in the week. "And he’ll get there. We believe in him and that journey is something we all believe in."

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