The Brooklyn Nets are back in hamstring hell, with James Harden’s re-tweak putting a significant damper on their best win of the season.
The Nets are facing that familiar adversity again — only this time they’re back to being underdogs. Harden went from right hamstring tightness to a strain to a setback — which cost him 20 games — to returning and being the team’s best player in the first round to re-injuring his right hamstring just 43 seconds into Game 1 of Round 2 against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night.
Brooklyn’s supporting cast stepped up in a big way — and the result was a 115-107 victory over Milwaukee. But it came at a significant cost. And given No. 13’s hamstring injury history, there aren’t exactly any reasons to be optimistic. Harden hurt himself on a drive to the basket against Jrue Holiday and limped to the other side of the court before heading straight to the locker room and then out of Barclays Center and into an MRI tube. The results are pending.
“I’m heartbroken for him,” Steve Nash told reporters.
It’s impossible not to feel for “The Beard.” He’s a triple-double machine, a vocal leader, his team’s engine. The entire organization adores him. And he’s chasing that elusive championship ring. Only now James Harden — always known for his durability — may be reduced to a coaching and cheerleading position on the bench. And that’s devastating.
The Nets (33-8 with Harden, 12-11 without him since the Jan. 14 trade coming in) were considered the favorite because of their Big Three — and now it’s down to a Big Two. It’s hard not to think back and wonder why Harden returned so early from the original soreness (he sat just two games). Brooklyn prides itself on taking precautions and the long view, but its title hopes may ultimately fade based on a tricky injury that seemed to be mismanaged from the start.
Kevin Durant (29 points, 10 rebounds in 40 minutes) and Kyrie Irving (25 points, eight assists in 45 minutes) both rose to the occasion in Harden’s absence, delivering their usual superstar performances. Durant and Irving are champions who know how to get it done in winning time, and they did so once again.
But this victory was just as much about the supporting cast. Buyout acquisition Blake Griffin had 18 points and 14 rebounds, while spending much of his time diving on the court to pick up loose balls, galvanizing his teammates in the process. Overseas signing Mike James — and full marks to Sean Marks, JR Holden, Tony Durant and others on this move — took full advantage of his opportunity and played with his usual fire and fearlessness, adding 12 points and seven rebounds. And Joe Harris — the guy Brooklyn once signed for two years, $2 million before he resurrected his career — went 5-for-9 from 3-point range and poured in 19 points.
The Nets ultimately played with the requisite defensive energy and effort. They also shared the ball by committee, rather than go into isolation mode. The 3-point line proved to be the difference — Brooklyn shot 15-for-40 to Milwaukee’s 6-for-30 — but the Bucks were surprisingly a step behind for most of the night. Giannis Antetokounmpo (34 points, 11 rebounds) got his, but Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton combined to shoot 13-for-42. That’s simply not good enough. Milwaukee needs to be better.
Still, the Bucks probably won’t keep shooting that poorly from deep. Griffin likely won’t be able to string together consecutive turn-back-the-clock performances. And Harden’s injury is massive.
There’s still plenty of series left. The Nets got the win, but they’re going to be underdogs from here on out. The Big 15 is now likely to be the Big 14 for some time. Durant and Irving will need to keep being otherworldly. And the supporting cast will need to keep delivering.
The waiting for James Harden’s MRI results is the hardest part.