James Harden said he was “very confident” that he would be back for the start of the NBA Playoffs in a post-workout media session on Thursday afternoon, with the Brooklyn Nets slated to play the Dallas Mavericks in the evening.
“The plan is to hopefully get an opportunity to play a couple games before the postseason,” said Harden. “We're just taking one day at a time. And I'm gonna leave it at that.”
Harden has been traveling with the team during this five-game road trip to continue his rehab on a hamstring strain that has kept him out of 17 of Brooklyn’s last 18 games with an abbreviated four-minute stretch on April 5 his only action since March 31.
“I feel like my voice is very, very important to the team,” said Harden. “Obviously on the court, it's a lot better. But while I'm not active and able to play, I think my voice can be very, very impactful. It's trying to help guys -- give guys nuggets here and there on what I see. And ultimately, to help our team be better. And I think my communication can go a long way. So, just trying to stay involved as much as I can while I'm not physically out there to be on the court. But, you know, it's been tough. It's been very difficult. Just being out for the longest I've been my whole career. So, I just try to stay involved, try to keep that positive energy and you know, keep my voice involved.”
The Nets have six regular season games remaining beginning with Thursday night’s game at Dallas. After playing Saturday night in Denver, the team has two days between games followed by a road-home back-to-back next Tuesday and Wednesday. The Nets then close the regular season with a back-to-back at home on Saturday, May 15 and Sunday, May 16. The NBA Playoffs begin on Saturday, May 22.
In 34 games for the Nets after being acquired in a mid-January blockbuster, Harden has averaged 25.4 points, 11.0 assists, and 8.7 rebounds per game. He was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for both February and March, each of his first two full months with the team. Despite the missed time, Harden is still tied for 13th in the NBA this season with 31 double-doubles and is third with 12 triple-doubles.
Brooklyn went 26-7 in the games Harden played between Jan. 16 and March 31. Since April 1 — including a win over the Knicks in which Harden started but left after four minutes — the Nets are 10-8, including losses in their last three games.
“We've had a number of opportunities to win games that we didn't win,” said Harden. “And it's because of the little things that we're not doing consistently. Which maybe it's because of practice time, maybe it's because of schedules and we’re playing games every other day. But we've had some really good film sessions these last few days on the small detail things, the boxing out, the screening offensively, just possessions like that to where we can control. And ultimately, that's going to get us over the top as far as winning games. But as far as me individually, everybody knows what I bring to the table. And so, I'm just patiently waiting to get back on the court and help the guys and ultimately reach what we're trying to accomplish.”
Harden’s absence has coincided with the return of Kevin Durant from a hamstring strain. Durant, who missed 23 games, returned on April 7. As a result, the trio of Harden, Durant, and Kyrie Irving has played a total of seven games together, with one of those games featuring a limited 19-minute appearance from Durant due to health and safety protocols. In the six full games they’ve played together, Brooklyn is 5-1.
“You’ve got three of the most elite basketball players in the game today and probably that’s ever played in the sense of skill-wise,” said Harden. “That’s not the problem. The problem is the detail things that I’ve talked about earlier, the things that we all as a group need to do and focus on. We know our roles. I know my role, I know what I’m supposed to be doing on the court and I think everybody on the team knows their role. I know that when I have Kevin and Ky and the rest of the guys on the floor I don’t have to score 30 points to win games. We’ve seen that all year. I can be a playmaker. I can do whatever’s necessary to win the game. I think everybody feels the same way. It’s not about scoring the basketball. It’s about the other things that probably won’t show up in the stat sheet that will get us wins. Once we get that it’s going to be tough for teams to beat us.”
Despite navigating those absences and more, the Nets remain in the race for the Eastern Conference’s top seed. They’re 43-23, two games behind first-place Philadelphia (45-21), and Harden is looking forward to what a full-strength Brooklyn squad is capable of.
“We’re sitting in, what, the second spot and we’ve had so many lineups, that right there tells you how great, or how good, or whatever you want to call it that this team is,” said Harden. “So once we, I think the most important thing for us going into the postseason is health, and this season has been so condensed. You see a lot of guys going down because of the amount of games, so I think for us, our mindset is, if we can come into this postseason healthy, we are right there and we’ve got a chance, and that’s it right there within itself, so finish these last 6 games out strong, focus on the things we need to focus on, things we can control, and go out there and have fun, and we’ll live with the results.”