NBA

Is James Harden getting in Kevin Durant's way at Brooklyn Nets?

The Brooklyn Nets beat the New York Knicks after an entertaining finish on Tuesday, but doubts remain over the team's prospects in the NBA playoffs.

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Is James Harden getting in Kevin Durant's way at Brooklyn Nets?
Michelle Farsi AFP

The Brooklyn Nets are hard to work out. They’re a team that set the pulse racing, an attractive proposition full of talent, clearly a contender for the NBA championship ring. But they also spark doubts, attract no little flak; something always seems to be up with them. The quality of their stars, particularly Kevin Durant, means they lead an Eastern Conference that has plenty of challengers but no dominant force, but the absence of Kyrie Irving and the problems fitting James Harden into their playing system could really hold them back in the playoffs. Because that’s what their season will be judged on, and it’s only a few months since they were dumped out of the 2020/21 playoffs in a memorable Game 7 in Brooklyn, when they took eventual NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks to overtime, despite being plagued by injuries. If Durant had taken the shot that forced OT from a couple of steps further back, we’d be talking about a different title winner; perhaps the Nets could have claimed the ring they covet. But, of course, ifs don’t win championships.

Harden did well against the Knicks, but...

Harden played well against the New York Knicks on Tuesday… for a while, at least. He was a great foil for his team-mates in the first half, frequently the leader of the Nets’ play, and ended up with good figures (34 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and three steals) and, above all, good shooting percentages (11 from 20 on field goals, three from eight on three-pointers and nine out of 10 on free throws). A more than acceptable performance, but one tarnished by five turnovers and a final quarter in which he contributed just four points and, more than anything, got in the way. Because Harden, a generational points scorer, a prolific creator and, three years ago, MVP in the world’s best league, has a very particular way of playing. And he doesn’t always gel to perfection with other stars who also need the ball and look to create points at times when he’s used to grabbing the spotlight.

Durant also played well against the Knicks. Very well, indeed: he registered 27 points, five rebounds and nine assists (his improvement in this area since his arrival from the Golden State Warriors has been meteoric). What’s more, he scored 11 in the final quarter, and nine in the last six minutes. Durant, one of the best players of all time, does know how to play without the ball: he learned to do so at the Oklahoma City Thunder, alongside a Russell Westbrook who needed to be the man in possession a lot of the time. He then completed his development as a player at the Warriors. And we’re not talking about Klay Thompson, a player who spends practically all the time without the ball. Durant knows how to play without it, but in the crucial moments when games are decided, he is the creator and the finisher, the man who takes the ball into the danger area and either supplies the assist or finds the basket. He’s the hero, the judge and the executioner. And Harden bouncing the ball for 20 seconds, almost without moving, and then passing it to him - that’s not the best plan.

Kevin Durant scored nine of the Nets' last 13 points against the Knicks on Tuesday.

Harden needs to improve with the ball, but mainly without it

That’s not exactly what happened against the Knicks, a clash the Nets won after a thrilling finale, but it is a trend that the team’s head coach, Steve Nash, needs to change. When Harden doesn’t have the ball, he wonders about the court not really knowing what to do. To an extent that’s to be expected, given he’s constantly had the ball in his hands since in 2012 he was the scapegoat for the Thunder’s NBA finals defeat and left for the Houston Rockets. Irving, a flat-Earther and anti-vaxxer, had no choice but to learn to play without the ball when he was alongside LeBron James. If he’s to be a good foil for Durant and avoid becoming a bit of an obstacle in his path, Harden needs to learn to do so and to be effective and influential without it in the final quarter. He’s got plenty of room for improvement, as he is on 20 points per game this season, with 40% on field goals. The former figure is his lowest since he left the Thunder, after a year in which he was named Best Sixth Man with an average of 16.8 points. The latter is his worst such percentage since his rookie year. His numbers will go up, that’s for certain.

Against the Knicks, there was a bit of everything. It was derby day in the Big Apple, and it didn’t disappoint: an evenly-matched affair with 25 points, five rebounds and five assists by Alex Burks, who has definitively established himself as a starter for New York after Tom Thibodeau’s banishing of Kemba Walker from the rotation and, who knows, perhaps from the team. We also saw 24+9+8 from Julius Randle. Evan Fournier (13) levelled the game with less than 18 seconds to go, James Johnson (7) scored two free throws and, when Fournier missed a three-pointer to win it, Brooklyn had a merited victory, having shown greater attacking drive in the final minutes. However, it’s not always enough to win; sometimes, you also need to win convincingly. And, as things stand, Harden’s role needs to be much clearer and infinitely more effective, particularly in the closing stages of games. Because with a team in a very similar shape to this one (Irving was also out, on that occasion due to injury), the Nets may have come close to beating the Bucks, but coming close and losing are the same thing.