The James Harden who returned to Houston as a Brooklyn Net is not the same dribble mad star Rockets fans watched for years.
James Harden made quite an impact in Houston.
The Toyota Center cannot be packed for James Harden's return game, but there is still excitement in the building. (Photo by Chris Baldwin)
Britney Sumpter, James Harden, and his mom, Monja Willis
Mayor Sylvester Turner, James Harden
James Harden bowls in a Houston charity event. (Photo by Lee Beckman)
James Harden turned to be right. About all of it. About his ability to adjust — and play a different style of game. A beautiful game. About the hapless, pretty hope-light state of the Houston Rockets.
You can be mad at him for that if you want. Some Houston Rockets fans definitely are. Oh, there are plenty of No. 13s in the Toyota Center stands for Harden’s return game — plenty of Brooklyn Nets jersey 13s too. And the college-aged kid who calls out “James, drop 80 on us!” about 15 minutes before the opening tip is hardly alone in that sentiment.
But a mix of fierce boos and enthusiastic cheers great his pregame intro. And the first few times Harden touches the ball during the game, the boos far outweigh the cheers. But it cannot last. Not with how Harden is playing. Not with how bad this current Rockets team is.
Harden’s new Brooklyn running buddy, Kyrie Irving, talked big before this game about how he would not allow any “shit talking.” The Nets look braced for a night of venom too. They make a point of surrounding Harden during the pregame intros, clapping enthusiastically for him in an attempt to mute any of those boos.
It turns no one on Brooklyn needed to worry. At all. Even those who harbor a grudge about the why James Harden pouted himself out of Houston — which is something worth being mad about — have no real stomach for this fight.
When Harden misses the rim, the backboard and everything else on a fourth quarter three attempt, the “Air ball! Air ball” chant is weaker than weak. Half hearted does not even begin to describe it. Tristan Thompson was more committed to his relationship with Khloe Kardashian than this.
By the time, Harden gives away the pink sneakers he’s wearing to a kid in the crowd after the game, the transformation’s been more than complete. No. 13 sends the hometown Houston Rockets skidding to their 13th straight loss, a 132-114 affair that mostly illustrates James Harden’s reborn, efficient joy.
Sure, the way Harden left, the way he quit really caring, borders on childish. But it’s hard to begrudge The Beard of his happiness now. James Harden has found basketball nirvana — and it’s something to watch.
Anyone who claims that Harden returned to Houston and did what he always does knows about as much about basketball as a Martian. (And not the one in Space Jam.) This is a very different James Harden on the Nets. He’s playing a different game. He’s still a star, but he’s a different star.
The mad dribbling man, pounding the ball, often while standing in the same space, is barely there any more. This Brooklyn Harden does not take his (painfully) sweet time to decide what he wants to do. This Harden moves the ball — and himself. Harden’s game has changed again with more talented teammates around time, just like he told people it would.
You could admire — and even marvel slack jawed at times — at what Harden did in Houston without loving the overall style the Rockets played. In fact, I don’t know any devoted general NBA fans who enjoyed watching the Rockets play all that much during the Harden years. It never looked like it would be fun to be a Harden co-star or supporting star in Houston.
Which may be why the Rockets went through so many (Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook) without finding one that could stick for long.
But now? This Brooklyn Harden looks like he’d be a blast to play with. Harden is playing more like he did back in Oklahoma City, more like does in NBA All-Star Games. He’s content to let others (Irving in particular) grab the reigns for stretches of games. He still racks up another bonkers bottom line triple double (29 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds, plus three steals and a block for good measure) in his H-Town return.
But none of it is forced. Harden only takes 15 shots in 41 minutes, six less than Irving puts up.
“I just wanted to come out here and give them a show,” Harden tells the media afterwards.
He did that. Yet, it’s a different kind of show.
It turns out that Rockets may owe James Harden an apology, too. Harden may have been playing the way he did, because it’s the only way he could drag Houston to the brink of the NBA Finals. Maybe, he really did just get sick and tired of having to do it all.
On this night, John Wall and Victor Oladipo are the ones going one-on-one for most of the night. Wall and Oladipo hoist up 55 shots between them for these shorthanded and beyond talent-limited Rockets. And please enough with the missing Christian Wood talk. Wood is no new-age Shaq. These Rockets are destined to be one of the very worst teams in the entire NBA, with or without Wood.
They belong right there with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons in that conversation.
Harden turned out to be a pretty good judge of the talent he had to work with in Houston, too. He saw the end long before the bottom dropped out. In fact, there are some Rockets media homers who still cannot see it — even though it’s right in front of their eyes.
Tilman Fertitta’s Good Guy Move
Harden comes away from this night looking better than good. Rockets billionaire owner Tilman Fertitta comes out looking like a good guy too, one who does not have the time or need for bitterness when it comes to The Beard. The video tribute to Harden the Rockets show on the big overheard scoreboard midway through the first quarter is all class.
It spends a good amount of time on Harden’s work in the Houston community, a side that’s too often missed.
Most of Harden’s Nets teammates look up from their timeout huddle to watch the video, too. Any debate over the Rockets one day retiring Harden’s number is silly — and Fertitta’s earlier promise there is something of a no brainer. James Harden will never come close to Hakeem Olajuwon, but he’s clearly the second best player in Rockets franchise history.
“Once I get on that court, it’s just trying to win,” Harden says after he does that for the 11th time in the last 12 games with Brooklyn. “I’m not really worried about anything else. That was kind of my feeling. Win the game and do whatever it takes. Do what you’ve been doing.
“Wasn’t trying to show off. Wasn’t trying to do anything out of the ordinary that I haven’t been doing.”
Harden still brought the show back to the Toyota Center. Even with a crowd of about only 3,700 with everyone nicely spread out, there is something of a buzz in the building. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner makes a point to show — and stays until just a few minutes remain. Just don’t get used to this scene. This is a one night only engagement.
The show is moving on. Only, the pieces are left behind. At the final buzzer, there are no boos. No one has the stomach or fight for that anymore.
James Harden is more than all right. It turns out he was right all along. On the Rockets. On where he was going. And what is still there for Houston.