James Harden didn’t come to Brooklyn to watch. He came to win.
The Nets’ All-Star guard won his race to return from a hamstring injury just in time for Tuesday’s pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
With Brooklyn’s season teetering on the brink — having lost two games in Milwaukee, and Kyrie Irving to an ankle injury — Harden was acutely aware of how much his team needed him. Out as of Monday night’s injury report, he was upgraded to doubtful in late morning, to questionable and finally to starting.
Harden hadn’t played since getting hurt just 43 seconds into the June 5 series opener, suffering right hamstring tightness. But Irving’s absence and the Nets’ desperation to salvage their title hopes had Harden pushing and prodding to play.
“Yeah, that’s what’s driving James here,” coach Steve Nash said. “He wants to play, he wants to win a championship. He loves the playoffs and the ability to play this time of year. So I think it’s been really difficult on him [with] how much he cares, how much time he puts in, how much effort he’s put in to get to this position. That’s definitely the source of his motivation right now and I understand and respect it.
“James is driving this. We have to support him the best way we can, and be an aid for him to figure this out. But it’s a tricky situation, but one that we’re willing to go down with James. He’s just been unbelievable for us this year and we want to support him and see if he can do it. And if he can’t, he can’t. But if he can, we want to support him in his wish to play and to try to help his teammates.”
Harden knew how much his teammates needed that help against Milwaukee.
The Nets won the first two games without him at home, but proceeded to drop the next two at Fiserv Forum to see the Bucks level the series and steal the momentum. They also lost Irving to a sprained ankle, leaving them without Harden, Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie. In dire need of a point guard — and a victory — Harden worked feverishly to get back on the floor.
“I’m not sure the level of risk; it’s not my expertise,” Nash said. “I think it is James’ decision. He’s been pushing. He wants to play. But he’s got to go through his pregame routine and see if he’s able. But ultimately it’ll be James’ decision and [we] support him.”
Harden trained hard Monday morning upon the Nets’ return to Brooklyn, although was kept designated as out. Then he worked his hamstring again in Tuesday morning’s shootaround and showed enough improvement to get upgraded.
After coming through pregame warm-ups unscathed, he had enough evidence to plead his case and got the performance team to clear him.
For exactly what kind of role and precisely how many minutes was unclear. But his leadership, court vision, calming influence and floor generalship would be key even if he was under a significant restriction.
“We have our ideas. I’m not going to express what they are, because nothing is set in stone yet,” Nash said. “But we definitely have discussed and thought of the different realities, so to speak, and we’ll lean deeper into whatever plan presents itself.”
Harden missed 18 straight games with a strained right hamstring near the end of the regular season. He got hurt again less than a minute into Game 1 against the Bucks and hadn’t played since — until Tuesday.
It’s hard to overstate how important Harden is to Brooklyn, especially without Irving. The Nets are 34-8 when he starts, including a 5-1 mark in the playoffs. Without him? They’re just 20-19, including 1-2 in the postseason.
“I don’t think they’d throw that out there if his health was still in question. That’s the biggest thing at the end of the day that guys are healthy,” Joe Harris said. “You don’t ever want to put anybody in a compromised position because the worst thing that could happen is come back too early and then you start back over from where you were at in the beginning.”