In late April, Mike James walked in the door and right into the Brooklyn Nets’ rotation.
With James Harden out at the time, the Nets had a need at point guard and James — who had been playing in Europe until the middle of the March — closed out the regular season as a regular contributor. With the return of Harden and the start of the playoffs, James played little in the first-round win over Boston, but he was thrust right back into things when the Nets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 115-107 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Saturday night.
James was grabbing a cup of water around the time Harden grabbed his hamstring at the end of a drive on Brooklyn’s first possession. Forty-three seconds into the game, Harden left the floor.
“I saw him walking off the court and then he just kept walking,” said James, “so I didn't really understand what happened, and then they said that James tweaked his hammy again or something, so they were like, 'Yeah, you've got to be ready.' So it kind of changed my mentality from what I thought I was going to happen. I thought maybe I play five minutes at the most, or maybe I don't play at all, so yeah, got to stay in the right mental capacity and stay locked into the game, really.”
James got the call seven minutes into the game and ended up playing 30 minutes — his longest stint as a Net — and scoring 12 points with seven rebounds and three assists.
“He just plays with a lot of confidence,” said Joe Harris. “He comes in, plays his game regardless of the scenario. He's done it since the moment that he got here and regardless of playoffs, regular season whatever it might be, comes in, plays his game, has a lot of confidence but he's a talented player.”
There were stretches when the Nets were first playing without Harden back in April that Nets head coach Steve Nash would reference a lack of pace to the offense when Kyrie Irving was off the floor. James can’t replace Harden, but he seemed to bring that element back into play when he first arrived. Brooklyn’s ball movement against the Bucks on Saturday was in rhythm, with five different players recording at least three assists, led by Irving’s eight.
“Especially with (Kevin Durant) and Kyrie and how dangerous they are in transition and the shooters we have pushing the pace helps a lot, just helps us getting teams to scramble and when we start moving the ball, I mean, when you swing the ball and Joe Harris is wide open, you can basically just walk down to the other side of the court,” said James. “So pushing the ball and getting open shots, when we do that we’re dangerous, besides the fact that Kevin and Kyrie can score on anyone as well.”
While James was ready to go against Milwaukee, he did find the time out of the rotation over the first two weeks of the playoffs a challenge. He’d been playing a leading role abroad before immediately filling a need when he joined the Nets.
With Brooklyn, he’s surrounded by elite point guard talent, staring with his Hall of Fame coach.
“He wants me to be free, I think,” said James. “I think he wants me to push the pace, which is fun, I get a lot of freedom to be creative and get downhill and get passes out and take my shots when I’m open and available. So I think having a coach like that honestly helps out a lot, just knowing that he trusts you and to have some freedom.”
Then there’s the opportunity to take the practice floor with Harden and Irving on a regular basis.
“Obviously just working on your game every day, which is something I like to do, you get better over time,” said James. “I don't know how much better I've gotten in the last month, but just in the system, being able to contribute, trying to do the little things, because we have three of the best players in the world, so obviously little things matter when you're on a team like this, especially for me. So just trying to be a ball mover, trying to push pace, trying to get other guys open shots if I can and try to take pressure off the big three as much as possible.”