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Sports

Pregame talk with Reggie Miller helps James Harden rediscover MVP form

Alder Almo - Philstar.com
Pregame talk with Reggie Miller helps James Harden rediscover MVP form
James Harden of the Brooklyn Nets controls the ball against Immanuel Quickley of the New York Knicks at the Barclays Center on November 30, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Michelle Farsi / Getty Images / AFP

BROOKLYN – James Harden took a leap in the early moments of the third quarter. A thunderous putback slam off a Patty Mills' missed three and a wild celebratory roar announced Harden's return to MVP form.

"It might've been the first one of my career [in] 13 years. I had to let it out. I wasn't that great when I looked at the highlight, but it felt great," Harden said. "And that's all that matters."

Harden let out the frustration of a previous stinker as he finished with 34 points on 11-of-20 shooting from the floor and 9-of-10 from the free throw line. The 2018 MVP flirted with a triple-double with 10 rebounds and eight assists. He was also engaged in defense, chipping in three steals as the Brooklyn Nets held off New York Knicks, 112-100, Tuesday night (Wednesday, Manila time) before a sellout crowd of 18,081 at the Barclays Center.

It was a stark contrast of his play in Brooklyn's 113-107 loss to the red-hot Phoenix Suns at home over the weekend. Harden looked lost and passive at times.

"Honestly, I'm trying to figure all that out right now," Harden said after a 4-15 shooting night against Phoenix. "I'm trying to figure it out. I'm trying to figure out when to score, when to be a playmaker, when to run the offense and when to do a little bit of everything."

So, what changed?

A pregame pep talk from former Knicks killer-turned TNT broadcast analyst Reggie Miller reminded Harden who he is as a player.

"You do know you're James Harden. You are a former MVP, right? What do you mean you don't know when to score and when to pass?" Miller recalled their pregame conversation on the TNT broadcast. "You never had this problem where you were in Houston. Go back to what you know best. And that's scoring the basketball."

Harden heeded Miller's advice.

Against the Knicks, Harden hunted for his shots from the tip-off. He scored 15 points in the opening quarter and joined Miller as one of the only four NBA players to hit 2,500 3-pointers.

"Reggie is the one that got me going. He's got me going for sure," Harden said. "But yeah, it was just ultimate confidence, the best-player-in-the-league type of mindset. That was motivation before the game. Something I needed."

Harden had 28 points by halftime. Then he slid back to being a playmaker in the second half as Mills and Kevin Durant got hot. Harden had three assists each in the final two quarters.

Mills opened the second half with a back-to-back three-pointer. The second one came off a Harden feed. The Nets raced to a 16-point lead, 82-66, with 5:22 remaining in the third quarter. But the Knicks recovered and trimmed the gap to four behind Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and Julius Randle heading into the final quarter.

Durant shrugged off a slow start and dropped 21 of his 27 points in the second half.  He took over in the final 5:45 with 11 points down the stretch to fend off the Knicks' repeated attempts to steal the win.

Harden assisted Durant's last three field goals in the fourth quarter.

Thanks to Miller, Harden regained his confidence.  

"I always want James to attack," Nets coach Steve Nash said before the game. "I want him to attack and put pressure on the defense. If it ends in a shot more times than not, great. If it ends in a pass, more times than not, that's great too. For me, I don't necessarily want to pigeonhole him into, 'You have to score, you have to play make.' I want him to be aggressive, be himself, and make plays."

Harden's return to form is a welcome development for the Nets, who, despite holding the current best record (15-6) in the Eastern Conference, are in a precarious situation.

Their backcourt rotation got thinner with the recent loss of Joe Harris to ankle injury (out 4-8 weeks) in addition to the continuing absence of Kyrie Irving (due to non-compliance with New York's vaccine mandate).

The workload became heavier for Durant and Harden, who both played 40 minutes against the Knicks.

Nash will need Harden's best version as a scorer and playmaker for the Nets to live up to their preseason billing as title favorites.

Harden finally took the much-needed leap. Will it end in a wild celebratory roar in June?

***

Alder Almo is a former senior sportswriter for Philstar.com and NBA.com Philippines. He is now based in Jersey City, New Jersey, and writes for the New York-based sports website empiresportsmedia.com.

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