James Harden Showed an Ability to Adapt in Brooklyn Nets Debut

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First, the caveat. There is nothing special to be gleaned about a regular season win in January, let alone one against a mediocre, short-handed opponent on the second night of a back to back. That being said, the Nets did what they were supposed to do in James Harden’s debut, dispatching the Magic 122-115 on Saturday. Harden recorded a triple-double in his first outing with Brooklyn, putting up 32 points, 12 rebounds and 14 assists. The 14 assists were a single-game franchise record (albeit with nine turnovers). 

Of course, all of this may not matter Sunday when Kyrie Irving is expected to return to the floor. For now, here are three thoughts on Harden’s Nets premiere.

Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden dribbles in his Brooklyn Nets debut

Harden Doesn’t Need Iso Ball

It’s probably fair to wonder what Harden’s numbers would look like over the course of a full season without playing the iso-heavy style that became his trademark in Houston. Well, he put up even better numbers than his usual averages in his first go-around with Brooklyn. Obviously, Harden will still have the ball in his hands a good amount, even when Kyrie ultimately returns. Saturday was at least notable in how Brooklyn’s offense maintained movement instead of stopping and staring at Harden. For example, this possession that didn’t even end in a score:

Look at how Joe Harris’s movement means Orlando’s defenders have to keep shifting their eyes back and forth between him and the Harden-Durant two-man game. Now imagine one of those defenders is also dealing with Irving. There are going to be ample opportunities for Irving, Durant, or Harden to take advantage of defenses who basically can’t commit more than one player to any of the stars. (Not to mention, which team has three guys to match up with Irving, Durant, and Harden in the first place?)

There are going to be plenty of pick-and-rolls between some combination of the star-studded trio. There will also be plenty of isolations when one of them has an over-the-top mismatch. And Harden still needs to prove he can commit to off-ball actions when the time comes. But it’s promising from the get-go that the Nets avoided a lot of ball-pounding possessions Saturday.

Joe Harris Adds Fuel to the Fire

We touched a bit on Harris above, but he really deserves his own mention. The most Brooklyn-looking player on the Nets scored 17 points Saturday, connecting on four of his nine threes. The Nets don’t have a ton of depth outside of their top three, but Harris is absolutely going to feast playing alongside so much talent. He scored the first basket of the game off a pass from DeAndre Jordan, which served as kind of a wake-up call for what happens when teams are so focused on the heavy hitters. There are going to be games in which Harris thoroughly outscores one of Durant, Irving, and Harden because of how many open looks he’ll have. Here’s one more clip from my guy Mo Dakhil:

That’s not even a wide-open look for Harris! But Harden collapses the defense without even needing a pick. Durant keeps the floor spread out. And Harris can just lurk around the arc for the best look while the opponent scrambles. Defenses are going to go crazy defending for a full shot clock. Prepare yourself now for many late-possession, back-breaking threes from Harris.

Depth and Defense Watch

These are the two “problem” areas for Brooklyn as the season moves forward. Can the Nets survive with such a front-loaded roster? And will the defense, which was already leaky, hold up against elite opponents? The earliest returns are mixed.

Orlando was really not in a position to keep this game close, yet somehow it was a two-point game around three minutes to go in the fourth. The Nets will have plenty of time to practice between now and the postseason, and figuring out how to get stops needs to be the biggest focus. Durant is the only perimeter stopper in a lineup of Irving, Harden, Harris, KD, and Jordan. The Nets will probably welcome shootouts on most nights, but this bears keeping an eye on as the year continues.

As for the role players, nobody really flashed in Game 1. Jeff Green had 10 points in 30 minutes, while the bench combined for 19 points. Again, Irving will help. But it was funny to see Durant and Harden each play 40 minutes when Steve Nash said before the game he would like to control their minutes. Having said that, Bruce Brown hit a dagger three in the waning moments of the fourth to officially ice the Magic. As long as the Nets get a timely bucket here or there from the supporting cast, it should be just enough considering the punch the headliners will bring.