The Nets have rightly resigned themselves to a season of the Big Two. With All-Star Kyrie Irving refusing to get the coronavirus vaccine and franchise officials led by owner Joseph Tsai deciding against allowing him to play in road games, title hopes now rest on former Most Valuable Player (MVP) awardees Kevin Durant and James Harden. Their position is far from untenable; they still have the most talented roster in the National Basketball Association, and oddsmakers remain most optimistic about their chances to ultimately take the title.
Through the first two weeks of the season, however, the Nets have been anything, but dominant. It isn’t just that they’re currently closer to the tailend than the top of the Eastern Conference, it’s that they’re unable to gain any sort of momentum, what with their alternating victories and setbacks. And all it takes is a cursory eye test to see why. Even as Durant has produced the level of play expected from him, Harden has had to endure a difficult start to the season. Pundits have counted a significant rule change among the reasons for his slump; referees are no longer biting on his usual foul-baiting tactics, limiting his trips to the charity stripe and thereby preventing him from generating any rhythm the way he used to with the freebies he got.
More importantly, however, Harden has yet to fully shake off the leg injury that sidelined him in the 2021 Playoffs. As he himself noted, he spent much of the offseason convalescing from the Grade 2 tear in his right hamstring. And he’s now compelled to get himself back into shape during the actual matches, hardly ideal in any case and made even more difficult by the lower frequency of dead-ball situations. That said, he argued that he is close to recovering from the first major sidelining of his career. “I’m finally, slowly, getting back to it. You’ve just gotta keep fighting for it, and I will.”
If Harden’s last outing is any indication, the “it” he referred to is a matter of when, and soon. In a win against the Pacers the other day, he pulled out a vintage performance that had him netting 29, eight, and eight. He took only 11 shots from the field, but likewise a whopping 19 free throws, thus accounting for his offensive efficiency. It was his most compete outing of the Nets’ 2021-22 campaign to date, and they’ll need more of the same if they intend to truly contend for the hardware. “It was just me being aggressive,” he disclosed. “Eventually, things are gonna happen where it’s consistent and I’m out there playing [like] my [old] self.” Indeed.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.