If the Nets make it to the finish line, if they make it to the parade, then James Harden will be remembered forever for these three games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Time was, fans in Brooklyn adopted an athlete based on effort, based on character, based in any number of things.
Gil Hodges went 0-for-21 in the 1952 World Series, but his popularity in Brooklyn only soared. Don Newcombe lost a heartbreaking 1-0 decision when Tommy Henrich hit a ninth-inning home run in Newk’s Series deut in 1949; he never came as close to a World Series win, pitched to an 8.59 ERA. It didn’t matter.
Most notably, Sal Maglie pitched a gem on the afternoon of April 8, 1956, Game 5 of the Series, allowing but two runs and five hits. He was outpitched that day by a fellow named Don Larsen, who went 27-up, 27-down, but Maglie’s legacy in Brooklyn was secure forever after that.
Harden hasn’t been Harden in this Eastern Conference semifinal series. He played 43 seconds in Game 1. He shot 1-for-10 (0-8 from 3) in Game 5, and while his shooting improved in a 16-point, seven-assist effort in Game 6, he was still clearly limited, still clearly bothered by his bum right hamstring, which makes perfect sense because a bum hamstring is about the worst thing an athlete can try to play with.
But that was the key word, of course.
He tried to ignore whatever level of discomfort was howling from the hammy, he played on grit and guts and guile and veteran cleverness. You could tell just by watching that sitting out Games 2, 3 and 4 made him abjectly miserable. And you could tell, even through his limited physical capacity, just how much playing Games 5 and 6 meant to him.
And to his teammates.
“We’re not expecting too much from him movement-wise,” Kevin Durant said of Harden after Game 6, Thursday night in Milwaukee. “But he’s going out there and giving it his all and we respect that.”
Harden has been philosophical the whole time. He has been neither diva nor drama king as he has fought his way through the aches and pains. He has refused to give a full accounting of just how badly it hurts and further refuses to lean on it as an excuse. He embodies the old chestnut of the difference between being injured and being hurt.
“It’s not even about rust, it’s about being able to move,” Harden said Thursday. “As I go day-by-day, continue to get better. The last game, Game 5, was the first day that I did any movement like that since I got hurt.
“So [Game 6] was no different, you know? I’m out there to do whatever it takes to win. I’ve got to be better on both end of the ball, which I will be in Game 7.”
Yes. They will remember Harden in Brooklyn, and it’s funny because the way he will be remembered here is likely to be far different than the way he was perceived in Houston. There, for the longest time, he was perceived as a regular-season mammoth and a playoff pipsqueak. Then he engineered his departure earlier this year.
It was not his most graceful moment.
But it is important to remember what he did once he got to Brooklyn, once the expectations were ramped up for him, amped up for his team. Harden played 36 mostly brilliant games as a Net, averaging 24.6 points and 10.9 assists and 8.5 rebounds. More to the point, he did what few believed he was capable of: He subjugated himself for the good of the team.
More than any of the Big 3, it was Harden who voluntarily upped his game while reducing his prominence in the offense. Durant was the alpha dog. Kyrie Irving was the guy who, when he was hot, Harden was sure to get the ball into his hands. Harden worked the corners and did so splendidly.
And then his hammy began to growl. Harden’s limitations may get in the way of where the Nets hope to go, but just his presence seems to have elevated their view of himself. He will be remembered in Brooklyn. Especially if they wind up touching the wall first.