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SportsColumnistsGreg Logan

Verdict is in: Nets' James Harden rules court as league MVP

Nets guard James Harden walks on the court

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

Is there really any doubt? With barely more than 25 games left in the 2020-21 NBA season, the Nets’ James Harden clearly is the Most Valuable Player in the league.

He said it himself when asked if he belongs in the MVP conversation following the Nets’ win in Detroit on Friday night. "I feel like I am the MVP," Harden said. "It’s just that simple. Just I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to speak individually on myself. I’m just going to leave it at that. But I just try to go out there every single night and give my teammates everything I can bring to the game."

The Nets' trade for Harden became official on Jan. 14. Since then, they have played 33 games, He sat out two games and they lost both of them. In the games, Harden has played, the Nets (31-15) are 24-7. They ranked 1.5 games behind the Eastern Conference-leading 76ers (32-13) before the Sixers faced the Clippers Saturday night in Los Angeles.

The Nets’ Big 3, which also includes Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, have played together only seven times in the 31 games Harden has played, and they are 5-2 in those games. Durant, who has missed 18 straight games because of a strained left hamstring and 21 of the past 22 games because of COVID-19 medical protocols, is expected to return from a left hamstring injury during the upcoming three-game homestand that begins with a game against the Timberwolves Monday night at Barclays Center.

Irving has missed the past three games for personal reasons. His return is uncertain. He has played 24 games with Harden, going 18-6 in those games. So that means Harden and the Nets are 6-1 in games without Irving and Durant.

Those numbers are phenomenal. Now consider these numbers. Harden is averaging 26.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 11.4 assists since joining the Nets. Including the games he played with the Rockets, his averages are 25.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 11.2 assists. So he has elevated all of his numbers with the Nets, and he is leading the NBA in assists (11.2) and minutes played (38.1). And finally, he has recorded 11 triple-double performances in the 31 Nets games he has played.

It simply doesn’t get any better than that.

When asked about his satisfaction about the way he is playing and whether his numbers are MVP-caliber, Harden brushed it off. "The numbers are showing it for itself, and we’re winning," he said. "That’s all I can say."

Indeed, that’s enough. No one has made a greater impact with any team than Harden has made on the Nets. He fell two assists short of yet another triple-double during the win over the Pistons, but Harden scored 44 points, which is his high since joining the Nets, and added 14 rebounds because he has focused on rebounds and playmaking since the trade.

"He carried us offensively," Nets coach Steve Nash said of Harden after beating the Pistons. "Made some big plays. We were up 10 in the fourth (quarter) and let it slip away, but James definitely carried us offensively."

The Nets actually had an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter at Detroit and saw it shrink to one point with 4:51 left to play. But Harden scored six straight Nets points as they took a 109-106 lead before closing out a 113-111 win. In other words, he did just enough to get the Nets over the hump to another victory.

That has been absolutely typical for Harden this season. When Irving joins him in the backcourt, it obviously is a major plus. But it also is significant that Irving came to Harden during one practice session and told him, "You’re the point guard." Irving has accepted a role that is more off the ball, but of course, Harden has continued to involve him deeply in the offense.

When Durant returns, the Nets’ offense will be nothing short of amazing. But that will be due to the difference Harden makes.

As Blake Griffin said of Harden: "It’s crazy. He just makes the game so easy for you and draws so much attention. You obviously look at his assist numbers and they’re unbelievable.

"Playing against him, it was kind of one of those things where you hoped to slow him down. And now playing with him, you really appreciate playing with guys like that because most of my shots are just ‘be ready.’ He does a great job of finding you, so it’s not something I take for granted."

Without a doubt, James Harden is the NBA MVP. Game over.

New York Sports