NEW ORLEANS — When he got off to a slow scoring start this season, James Harden said his body and conditioning weren’t yet ready to score 30 and 40 points.
It took him 13 games but Harden cracked 30 points for the first time this season, and nearly hit 40. The Brooklyn Nets guard had 39 points and 12 assists to help Brooklyn hold off the New Orleans Pelicans 120-112 at the Smoothie King Center.
“I’m getting there,” Harden said of him regaining his MVP form. “It wasn’t going to take long. I mean, this is the highest [level] in the sport is the NBA, the most talented players in this world. So it’s not going to be easy for me to just come out there and do what I do. It takes a lot of hard work to be playing at a point to which you guys have seen me play at.
“When I’m not scoring 30 points, when I’m averaging 18-some points, it’s like, ‘What’s wrong with James?’ It’s pretty solid still. I’ve been playing so well and so extremely at another level to where you guys set standards for me, and I set standards for myself as well. For me, I just continue to work. I feel a lot better, and the work don’t stop.”
New Orleans actually erased a 21-point, third-quarter deficit and led by three with 4:36 remaining. But Harden and Kevin Durant combined to score 11 points after that to put the Pelicans away.
Durant, who is off to a MVP-caliber start, had 28 points, eight assists and seven rebounds to help the Nets (9-4) win for the seventh time in their last eight games. Harden and Durant combined for 67 points, their second-largest total in a game as teammates with the Nets behind the 74 combined points the All-Stars had on January 16, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
When asked what opposing defenses can do when the two All-Stars are cooking at the same time, Harden paused.
“Ummm, pray?” Harden cracked. “I’m just playing [around]. I mean, it’s difficult. We’re two unselfish basketball players. We’re versatile. Obviously, Kevin is known for his scoring, efficient scoring, but he’s also a willing passer, especially when there’s double teams and things like that. It’s difficult to guard him, and it’s difficult to guard me, especially when we’ve got it going.”
It’s also hard for defenses to slow down Harden when he is getting to the free-throw line. Harden hit 6-of-10 3-pointers and went 11-of-18 from the field overall. But he also went to the line 15 times, making 11 free throws. It was only the second time this season that Harden enjoyed double-figure trips to the free-throw line as the Nets’ All-Star has had to adapt to the new rule changes with officials cracking down on “overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves” of ball handlers looking to draw fouls.
Harden had only been to the line a combined 22 times over his previous six games.
“He was aggressive all night,” Durant said of Harden. “He was getting downhill, getting to the free-throw line, 11-for-18, highly, highly efficient. Twelve assists, he just looked incredible.”
Harden’s biggest scoring night of the season comes one game after he had his third triple-double of the season in a win over Orlando on Wednesday. Harden’s three triple-doubles have come in his last seven games.
The guard attributed his slow scoring start to having to use the offseason to recover from a Grade 2 hamstring injury that slowed him down late last season. But he has repeatedly said his game would be back soon as he builds his confidence up.
“We’ve got to be patient with him,” Nets coach Steve Nash said when asked if Harden is back to full form. “It’s still I think got some yards to go before he feels this way every night or feels at his best. There’s the fitness, there’s the rhythm, and then there’s the confidence. For all those three things to come back, it does take time.
“He was great tonight. He’s been really good the last week or so and trending in the right direction, but I don’t want to get too carried away. Let’s give him time to get his game back.”