Nets’ James Harden won Game 5 just by playing

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As it turns out, James Harden did not take long to figure out this whole New York thing. We are all suckers for a star with an injured leg surprising everyone by hobbling his way back into the playoffs, and back into our hearts.

Willis Reed, Game 7, Madison Square Garden this was not. But out of left field, as he prepared to face Milwaukee in Tuesday night’s Game 5, Harden deserved credit for his determination, for his willingness to put his body on the line and, perhaps, for correctly reading the room. All boroughs of the city forever appreciate athletes who are tough and resilient, which is why the regular-season Knicks made such a favorable impression on their fan base.

Harden wasn’t about to let Kevin Durant go it alone in the wake of Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury without trying to help him save Brooklyn from a potentially lethal 3-2 series deficit. He approached pregame warm-ups with the intention of playing, and with the hope that his hamstring wouldn’t bark at him — or at least wouldn’t bark loudly at him — so he could let it rip against the Bucks. After making it onto the floor for Game 5, it didn’t matter what the final score said. He was declared a winner just by showing up.

“I think it is James’ decision,” said Nets coach Steve Nash. “He’s been pushing. He wants to play. He’s got to go through his pregame routine to see if he’s able. Ultimately it will be James’ decision, and we will support it.”

Harden appeared on the Barclays Center court an hour and 25 minutes before tipoff, took a seat on the bench, then hopped off and tried a reverse layup, a couple of free throws and a long series of 3-pointers and mid-range pull-ups. His right leg was taped. He looked bouncy, and relatively healthy, before jogging back to the locker room, with the Nets announcing shortly before tipoff Harden would be active.

Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) warms up before Game Five
James Harden took part in warmups before Game 5, ultimately deciding to tough it out against the Bucks.
Corey Sipkin

New York wouldn’t forget this effort. Brooklyn wouldn’t forget this effort. As it relates to Harden’s career legacy — never mind the way he’d be treated around town for the rest of his life — that’s a very good thing.

On arrival, people around here didn’t quite know what to make of Harden, the bearded ball-hog who grew up in California, played his college ball at Arizona State and spent his entire NBA career in the Western Conference until the Brooklyn Nets decided to go for it in January.

Until the Brooklyn Nets decided there was no good reason to have a Big 2 when it was possible to have a Big 3.

Harden had forced his way out of Houston with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, joining the superstars already in place, Durant and Irving, in pursuit of the NBA championship that had eluded him. He helped the Nets dispatch the Celtics in Round 1, before reaching for his right hamstring and bailing 43 seconds into Round 2.

It looked like he might be a conspicuous spectator for the balance of this Eastern Conference semifinal. If the Bucks ultimately prevailed, a permanently sidelined Harden would be best remembered in this series for his game-day attire, including that cool Nipsey Hussle t-shirt, and for a pressing question that had nothing to do with Brooklyn’s strategy against his old friend Giannis Antetokounmpo:

Did he or did he not lay out a hundred grand for a date with Saweetie?

But then Irving went down hard in Game 4, opening up new possibilities in Harden’s professional life. He had missed 18 straight regular-season games with his right hamstring injury, and it seemed plausible he’d miss more than four straight playoff games after hurting the same hamstring. In fact, the Nets listed him as out for Game 5 before Harden suddenly started rising up the board in the hours before tipoff, like a golfer on a birdie binge.

Out became Doubtful, and then Doubtful became Questionable. Harden survived the team’s morning shootaround unscathed, and then warmed up for the 8:30 p.m. start believing his 31-year-old body would let him play. Harden was going to make a lot of Brooklynites happy by taking ownership of the ball.

That didn’t necessarily mean Harden would be the same point guard who dished for 18 assists against Boston in Game 4, or the same point guard who eliminated the Celtics with a triple-double of 34 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in Game 5. Nobody knew if Harden’s hamstring would be at 90 percent, or at 75 percent, or at 50 percent. No matter what, his presence was expected to give the Nets a necessary emotional lift.

Harden knew his depleted team needed him.

“James is driving this,” Nash said

That’s what made Harden a winner even before he launched a single Game 5 shot.

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