PREVIEW: James Harden, Brooklyn Nets meet slumping Houston Rockets

Mar 1, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) shoots over San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl (25) in the second half at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The COVID-19 pandemic will mute the response of Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden returning to Houston on Wednesday for the first time since he was traded, in ways likely good and bad.

With just 4,500 fans expected at Toyota Center, the number of boos and cheers won’t come close to approaching the level that would have greeted Harden had a full house been on hand to welcome back the 2017-18 NBA Most Valuable Player.

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Harden averaged 29.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 7.7 assists, won three scoring titles and once led the league in assists while making the All-Star team in each of his eight full seasons with the Rockets. The split was unceremonious, with Harden accused of lackluster effort prior to forcing the organization to finally jettison him to Brooklyn in mid-January.

Harden, after delivering another sensational performance in the Nets’ 124-113 overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday, did his best to focus on the positive regarding his return.

“Yeah, I’m excited just to go back to Houston where I basically had an unbelievable career there and (the fans) showed me mad love and respect, and I’m just excited to be playing in front of those fans,” Harden said. “Yeah, I’m pretty excited.”

In theory, there should be no conflicted response. The final eight games Harden played with the Rockets should in no way counter his preceding 613 in a Rockets uniform. There were ups and downs and playoff failures, but the production was otherworldly and even the most embittered fans should readily admit that Harden did far more good than bad during his stay in Houston.

That Harden has in Brooklyn picked up where he left off with Houston should not skew the reception. Against the Spurs, Harden became the first player since the NBA began recording individual turnovers to produce a stat line of 30 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists without committing a turnover.

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His 30-point, 14-rebound, 15-assist effort led Brooklyn to its ninth win in 10 games, and Harden is averaging 25.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 11.3 assists with the Nets.

He has been terrific by every measure. He was the same in Houston. That fact was confirmed when Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta announced that the team would retire Harden’s No. 13.

“The time there was great,” Harden said. “Obviously we came up short of a championship or even the Finals, but just the work that I put in, hopefully, those fans appreciate everything that I’ve done on the court and off the court and I’m still continuing to do off the court. Because once there’s a place that I call home, it’s always home.”

The Rockets will limp into the matchup, having stretched their losing skid to 12 consecutive games with a 101-90 loss to the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday. Injuries have undermined the Rockets’ ability to move on successfully without Harden, with Houston utilizing its 21st starting lineup against the Cavaliers and closing the game with just three reserves available.

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Houston played without Christian Wood (ankle), Eric Gordon (knee) and David Nwaba (wrist) on Monday and lost Danuel House Jr. (knee) during the game. House and Gordon were listed as questionable for Wednesday while Wood and Nwaba aren’t expected to play.

“We had basically 6 1/2 guys play (Monday), and I’m so proud of those guys,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “All these guys haven’t been playing minutes like this all season, so maybe they were a little bit tired toward the end of the game.

“But I’ll take tired and playing with purpose and playing hard, just trying to will the group to win, any night.”

–Field Level Media