James, the indispensable Nets point guard … no, the other one.
Mike James was pressed into action after James Harden exited Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Saturday night when he aggravated his right hamstring injury, and the journeyman responded with 12 points in 30 dynamic minutes in a 115-107 win over the Bucks at Barclays Center.
Harden’s availability for the remainder of the series is looking questionable at best, so James is likely to take on an outsized role for a Nets squad that will need contributions and play-making from beyond its (for now) Big 2.
“It’s happened to us all year where something’s happened, some sort of adversity, someone goes down and the next man’s up,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “Mike, who would have thought before the game he’d play 30 minutes?
“Scored the ball, rebounded, made a few plays and hustled. It was great to see guys who haven’t been in the rotation get an opportunity, step up and play well.”
In the first-round series against the Celtics, with Harden upright, James only played in garbage time. On Saturday night, he was part of the Nets’ crunch-time five with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris and Blake Griffin.
James took on major ball-handling responsibilities while showcasing his ability — and appetite — to score at all three levels. He hit a 13-foot pull-up jumper, a runner over an outstretched Brook Lopez, a step-back 3-pointer, a spot-up 3 (which kicked off a 15-5 third-quarter run that gave the Nets control of the game for good) and a reverse layup, finishing 5-for-11 from the floor, including 2-for-4 from 3-point range.
James’ ability to drive and kick also sparked some dizzying sequences of Nets ball movement that delighted Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the rest of the frenzied Barclays Center crowd. He finished with three assists and added seven rebounds.
James averaged 7.7 points and 4.2 assists in 13 regular-season games after signing with the Nets in late April, when Harden was stuck on the shelf with the hamstring injury. The 30-year-old Portland, Ore., native arrived following a controversial exit from Russian club CSKA Moscow, chased by chatter he had clashed with his coach there; he had last appeared in the NBA in 2018.
In his first week with the Nets, James seemed to be relishing the chance to be a part-timer and glue guy.
“I liked playing a lot and having a star role. Just as you get older, I just don’t want to have that much responsibility on my shoulders every night,” he said.
Now that may be out the window. The Nets seemingly will rely on James for as long as Harden remains out — and he may have the responsibility as the primary point guard, in the glare of the playoff spotlight, for the 11 more victories the team is chasing.