Nets playmaker James Harden making NBA MVP case

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These MVP-level performances are why the Nets went all-in to get James Harden.

The tantalizing championship-level potential they’re starting to reach is why Harden forced his way to Brooklyn.

It was on display Tuesday in Phoenix when — with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving out — Harden led the Nets to the biggest halftime comeback in team history. It’s what had Harden so fired-up as they take a four-game winning streak into Thursday’s marquee matchup with LeBron James and the Lakers.

“The way we’re playing and the potential we have as a team is what I’m excited about,” Harden said. “Coming into Phoenix and they’d won six in a row, we’re down two of our best players and we come in and win after being down [21] at half? That’s exciting.

“We could’ve easily gave up … but we didn’t give up, and we won. So that’s exciting. Now we’ve just got to continue to build. Hopefully we get KD and Ky back next game, and just keep this train rolling.”

Even as he’s still rounding into shape, Harden already has become the conductor of that train. The Nets are hoping the last stop is the NBA Finals, and they look like odds-on favorites to meet the Lakers there, with Harden’s arrival the biggest catalyst in them leveling up from contenders to potential superteam.

The Nets are a middling 7-7 without Harden, but 11-5 when he starts, and a gaudy 5-1 when he’s in the lineup with Durant and Irving. It raises the question of whether he should be in the MVP conversation.

“He’s out there creating for everybody,” Durant said, “knocking down shots, being a shot-maker.”

James Harden
James Harden
NBAE via Getty Images

Harden had 38 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds to beat the Suns, hitting the dagger 3-pointer with a half-minute left to cap the comeback. But it’s been his ability to make everybody else better — yes, even the Big 3 — that has elevated the Nets.

When Jeff Green starts, the Nets’ entire lineup is shooting better than 50 percent overall and 40 percent from deep. All are hitting at career-high clips from 3-pointt range, and Harden’s playmaking is a huge reason why.

“That’s the brilliance of James, to be able to distort and manipulate the defense, and set his teammates up for opportunities. That’s a huge addition to our team is his playmaking and vision,” coach Steve Nash said.

“Clearly, he’s an elite playmaker. He brought that to our team, to our profile. … His playmaking is what makes our team improve more so than his scoring. Now, we want him to be aggressive and score and shoot, but the special part of what he brings to our team is his playmaking, and [that] does allow it to all fit together.”

Though Harden had joined Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only men to average more than 34 points more than once — claiming the past three scoring titles — he has adjusted since coming to Brooklyn. He has acquiesced to passing on shots and been less prolific, but more complete — averaging an NBA-high 11.8 assists and 8.4 rebounds, both career-bests.

“I just try to make the right play and play the game the right way. I don’t really pay attention to stats or whatnot,” Harden said. “I just knew coming in from the trade that defensively and rebounding, we weren’t the best at. So my mindset was as a guard try to be a really good rebounder.

“Making plays is something I’ve always naturally done. So it’s just a mindset, being in the right places and trying to communicate and just be engaged as much as possible every possession. The numbers and stats don’t really mean anything to me if we don’t win. That’s the most important thing.”

That desire to win prompted Harden to force a trade from Houston in a manner that has come under scrutiny. Even Draymond Green said, “I don’t think no one’s gonna fight that James was dogging it his last days in Houston.”

But James understood Harden’s reason, a single-minded focus on a ring.

“He wants to win,” James said. “He wants to win now.”

With Harden looking like an MVP candidate, the Nets have a chance.

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