Christmas at home might be the turning point in James Harden’s 2021-22 season. The Brooklyn Nets played at Crypto.com arena against the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day, against the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 27, and in between those two games, Harden’s high school in Lakewood, Calif., retired his jersey. A whiff of that Southern California smog and some hometown love was just the energy boost Harden needed for a monster Christmas time performance. In two consecutive Nets victories, Harden totaled double-digit assists and scored more than 35 points in each game.
Harden had missed four games prior to Christmas on the Nets’ health and safety protocol list, and that list grew so large for the Nets that they missed a week of action, as three of their games were postponed. Harden used that time off to address any lingering concerns about his conditioning, which he said was improving before he ended up in protocol.
“That break, that protocol, or COVID, or rest or whatever you want to call it could have went two ways,” Harden said to the media after the Nets 124-108 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday. “I just overly locked in on my body, my eating, and then was able to start working out, my workouts.”
Judge for yourself. Here is a picture of Harden working out after the Clippers win. Does he look to you like he’s in good shape?
While the Nets have held the best record in the Eastern Conference for most of this season, they have not been considered an overwhelming favorite to win the NBA championship. Some of the blame for that has been placed on Harden for appearing out of shape at times, as his statistics are the lowest they have been in years. Harden is currently shooting 34.3 percent from the three-point line, a paltry 41.5 percent from the field, and at 22 points per game, his scoring average is at its lowest since he came off of the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But again, the Nets currently have the best record in the Eastern Conference. They have won 15 of their last 20 games and were successful on their Los Angeles trip without MVP candidate Kevin Durant who was in health and safety protocol. Durant will return to the lineup on Thursday when the Nets play the Philadelphia 76ers. LaMarcus Aldridge and Kyrie Irving — who will only be playing in road games for the foreseeable future — are also out of protocol.
As the Nets roster gets stronger, their ultimate success this season will not be dependent on Harden having the kind of usage rate and scoring average that he had with the Houston Rockets, but him being in the type of condition necessary to run the offense and play well enough on the defensive end to help account for the Nets not having a traditional rim protector. He is correct that he was beginning to look more and more like that player prior to the Nets massive COVID outbreak, but his SoCal Christmas trip was as well as he’s played since being traded to the Nets early last season.
We’ve seen what the Nets look like when Harden is at his peak with them. Remember when they won 14 out of 15 games last season and against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs when it looked like the Nets super team was going to go 2017 Golden State Warriors on the NBA? Regardless of how Kyrie’s situation plays out, a locked in and healthy Harden spells trouble for the Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and any other team that feels it has a shot at an NBA Championship.