James Harden dropped 29 points in his first game back in Brooklyn since his blockbuster trade a year ago that signaled the end of the Nets Big 3 era.
He added six rebounds and six assists as he shrugged all the boos he received and helped the Philadelphia 76ers to beat his former team, 101-98, on Saturday night at Barclays Center.
After the win, Harden mused about his hasty departure from Brooklyn, which he attributed to the dysfunction that came to a merciful end at the trade deadline with separate deals for Kyrie Irving to Dallas and Kevin Durant to Phoenix.
“Yeah, there was, like, a lot of things,” said Harden when asked whether there was anything the Nets could have done to keep him in Brooklyn. “But it was just a lot of dysfunction. Clearly. But it was a lot of internal things that I’m not going to ever just say, put in the media, or anything. And that was one of the reasons why I chose to make my decision. But now, fast forward to date, I don’t look like the crazy one.”
Harden arrived in Brooklyn in January 2021 (via a blockbuster four-team trade) with a lot of hype of a new Big 3 that could lead to a Nets dynasty. But Harden, Durant, and Irving played only 16 games together during his tumultuous one-year stint in Brooklyn.
Harden was labeled a quitter when he left for Philadelphia in a trade for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks. In the wake of Irving and Durant’s departures, Harden felt vindicated.
“I don’t look like the guy or the quitter or whatever the media want to call me. I knew what was going on, and I just decided to … Hey, I’m not built for this. I don’t want to deal with that. I want to play basketball and have fun and enjoy doing it. And fast forward to today, they’ve got a whole new roster.”
Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson — young up-and-coming players from the Durant haul — and Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith — two veterans acquired from the Irving trade — started for the Nets along with holdover Nic Claxton.
The fresh start gave the Nets a fun and exciting team that is easy to root for—but lacks superstars to close out tight games like they had Saturday night.
Bridges, who led the Nets with 23 points, missed a layup with two seconds left that could have given Brooklyn the lead. Harden gave the 76ers a three-point cushion with 0.9 seconds left that served as the final margin after Dinwiddie’s three-point shot did not beat the buzzer.
It was poetic justice for Harden to close out the win against the Nets, where he played a dark chapter of his career that cast him in a bad light.
“The reason I made that decision to get out of my comfort zone, which was leave Houston and do everything that I did to get out of there, was to come in and play with KD and Kyrie,” Harden explained, “and with that being said, that didn’t happen as much as I would like to or probably the organization wanted to. It was just something where I knew it wasn’t going to change. So, for me, I just had to make an individual decision for the betterment of my family and my career and what I wanted. And that’s what happened.”
The Nets had a dominant 13-3 record when Harden, Durant, and Irving played together. Irving’s refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine last season torpedoed what could have been a potential championship run.
“It was a lot,” Harden said. “But I enjoyed my time obviously playing with KD and Kyrie for those games. There’s a lot of possibilities of what could’ve happened. But it’s part of life. Move on, and I’m sure having everybody’s in a better place, a good place. And here we are.”
Harden, Irving, and Durant have all moved on to contending teams, while the Nets were forced to hit the reset button after their Big 3 experiment ended in one of the most disappointing failures in league history.
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