James Harden finally set for Nets return after long absence

James Harden is finally on the verge of returning to the court.

The Brooklyn star hasn’t played since an April 5 victory over the Knicks. But after missing 18 straight games with a hamstring strain – the longest injury absence of his ironman career – Harden could suit up Wednesday night against San Antonio at Barclays Center.

Harden is listed on the Nets’ injury report as probable after The Athletic previously noted that he plans to play, assuming his pregame warmups go smoothly.

The Nets have insisted that Harden’s health is paramount and they won’t take any risks with their MVP candidate. But Steve Nash has also professed confidence that Harden would play before the end of the regular season – which draws to a close Sunday against Cleveland. And Nash also acknowledged that both Harden and the Nets want to see him get some live action before the playoffs start.

“Basketball is a game of rhythm. It’s really important to feel in rhythm. And sometimes, that can be physical and mental,” said Nash. “So he can physically train as much as he wants, but until you get out there in a game and prove to yourself mentally that your rhythm is there – or it’s close to being there – there is a gap. And I can relate to that as a player. So part of this is the performance team saying that we have the markers to say he’s safe to play now.

“In a vacuum, we might say, ‘He’s not playing ’til the playoffs.’ But basketball is played on the floor, and it’s not just James Harden jumps into a playoff game as James Harden. There are things that he needs individually and personally to feel confident and comfortable and to get reps. So that’s why we’d take any sort of risk of him playing in one of these games, so he can find that rhythm and comfort.”

James Harden plays in a 2021 game against the Rockets.
James Harden plays in a 2021 game against the Rockets.
Getty Images

Brooklyn is 27-7 when Harden plays this season and just 11-11 when he doesn’t after concluding their recent five-game road trip with a pair of victories.

Without Harden on the floor, the Nets have a .566 Effective Field Goal percentage and a 117.2 Offensive Rating, according to Basketball Reference – both of which are strong. But with Harden playing, those jump to .583 and 121.2, nearly unbeatable.

The Nets are banking on Harden’s return to help them continue to build some sort of positive momentum headed into the playoffs with just three games left on the schedule. Harden simply makes the job easier for everybody around him.

“If you just look at his numbers, just next time he plays just look at his stat line at the end of the first quarter,” Landry Shamet said. “I feel like every time I look up, he’s got like six assists or seven assists or something in the first quarter, rebounds, and he’s taken like maybe one or two shots.

“So that’s just who he is: He’s smart, he knows the game, he enjoys that aspect of kind of playing chess and trying to get guys involved early. That’s just who he is. So we’re obviously excited to have him back, whenever that is. And obviously (we) want him healthy, no rush, so that’s most important. So he does: He makes it easier for everyone.”

Harden has averaged 25.4 points, 11 assists and 8.7 rebounds this season. His numbers since joining the Nets would represent career highs in boards, offensive rating (118.8) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.69).

Kyrie Irving, who suffered a facial contusion in Wednesday’s win over the Bulls, was listed as questionable on the injury report.

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