James Harden will continue gutting it out for Nets

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MILWAUKEE — James Harden has never won that elusive NBA championship, but he’s pretty sure he knows what it’s going to take — making what seems impossible possible.

On Tuesday, that meant fighting back from a hamstring injury, upgraded from out to doubtful to questionable to logging 46 minutes in a Game 5 win over the Bucks. On Thursday it could mean an encore, Harden already ruled available for Game 6 with a chance to close out the Eastern Conference semis — hamstring be damned.

“I feel great. … At this point, it’s by any means necessary,” Harden said.

“We know there were going to be times in the postseason where we hit adversity, where things feel like they’re up against us and they can’t be done. In reality, they can be done. We’ve just got to find ways to get them done. … It feels like just when things are going well, something hits us. My approach to the guys is keep fighting. It’s going to be great on the other side.”

James Harden
James Harden
Corey Sipkin

After suffering right hamstring tightness just 43 seconds into the series opener, Harden hadn’t played since June 5. But with the Nets losing Games 3 and 4 in Milwaukee, and Kyrie Irving to a sprained ankle, Harden was determined to return.

In a season-saving victory, Harden handed out eight assists and grabbed six rebounds. And after feeling his way through the first half, he was a plus-20 in the second as the Nets blitzed the Bucks 71-49.

“He was not James at 100 percent, clearly,” coach Steve Nash said. “But he’s still able to run the team, give us confidence, give us poise.”

Harden didn’t just play — he ran a marathon on one leg.

“I didn’t expect to play [at all], so 46 [minutes] is a lot. But I’m built for it,” Harden said. “Get some rest and get my proper treatment. Credit to our trainers, they’ve been doing an unbelievable job of preparing me. So, get some rest and give it another shot Game 6 and try to come up with the same results.”

Can he turn in the same results after logging 46 minutes in his return? The Nets seem to think just shaking off the rust will outweigh any fatigue.

“I don’t know at all what James will look like for the next game compared to last night,” Nash said. “But there are certain things that he’ll feel more comfortable with just from a comfort of having played more basketball, from having a game under his belt, having felt it out there. That can only make him more comfortable and improve if physically he’s OK, and so far, he is.”

He might be OK, but Harden wasn’t even a reasonable facsimile of himself Tuesday. He shot 1-for-10 overall and 0-for-8 from deep, and looked immobile at times. But the Bucks inexplicably let him off the hook, failing to attack him defensively.

They’ll know better Thursday, facing elimination.

“Just keep having a lot of movement, lot of screen-and-rolls. Whoever he’s guarding, set pick-and-rolls, roll, pop, make him move, transition,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said of the game plan. “Whenever you see him, attack him. Don’t let him off the hook.

“Just make him move. Make him guard. That’s pretty much it.”

Harden found himself guarding Brook Lopez, but the 7-footer — who has a 7-inch height advantage — settled for a perimeter jumper rather than post up. And on another occasion, Antetokounmpo — half a foot taller — started to post up but ended up taking an off-balance fadeaway.

“I don’t know, maybe they will try to target him more,” Nash said. “It’s not really what they do, it would be a departure in some ways. But they may. And we’ll be ready for that as well.”

And Harden will try to handle that, too. By any means necessary.

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