In his much-anticipated return to Houston, James Harden first suffered the jeers. Then he soaked in the cheers. And by the end, he savored the victory.
Harden’s triple-double led his new team past his old one, as the Nets cruised to a 132-114 win over the Rockets.
The reception from the 3,615 at Toyota Center wasn’t as venomous as fellow Net Kevin Durant heard in his return to Oklahoma City, but Harden — who forced a trade and steered his way to Brooklyn — was mostly booed during introductions, and his every touch was jeered early on.
But then the Rockets honored Harden with a first-quarter video tribute that drew genuine cheers. Moved, he responded by raising both his hands in acknowledgement, then touched them to his heart.
“I’m excited. We got a win. To finish out strong like this going into the All-Star break means a lot,” Harden said. “As far as playing in Houston, a lot of mixed emotions from the fans. But knew that was going to happen. I just wanted to come out here and give them a show.”
That show was spectacular.
Harden, who had said the Rockets weren’t good enough as he tried to get himself traded, showed Houston how good his new squad is. He had 29 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds, just the sixth player to notch a triple-double in his first game versus his former club. He guided the Nets to team-record seventh straight road win.
And after leading the Rockets to so many wins wearing No. 13, Harden handed Houston a league-worst 13th straight loss.
“I’m a problem-solver at heart, and we’ve got a problem,” said Rockets first-year coach Stephen Silas, whose job got a lot tougher after the divorce from Harden, but who added that the former MVP deserves appreciation for his work in Houston. “He’s done a whole lot, scored a lot of points, carried this team to the playoffs. And he was here for a long time and they were much more good moments with James Harden for the Rockets than bad, so he should be recognized for that.”
In the wake of last month’s disastrous power outages in Houston, Harden’s restaurant, Thirteen by James Harden, donated 3,000 meals for needy residents, 100 meals a day to five different schools, and another 150 to a low-income senior center.
Harden said he found out about Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta’s vow to retire his number the same way everybody else did: On the internet.
“But my reaction was, hopefully I did something right,” Harden said. “Obviously, I came up short of a championship, but the work on and off the court that I put in over the past eight years was elite.
“That’s the only thing I didn’t do or accomplish is a championship, which is difficult to attain. But as far as bringing excitement to this city, taking care of the fans on and off the court is something I try to contribute, so hopefully that outweighs that.”
Harden’s Nets (24-13) are looking like a championship team, reaching the break with their third-best mark ever, and just a half-game behind the Eastern Conference-leading 76ers.
Kyrie Irving scored 24 points, while Nic Claxton added 16 points and eight boards in 16 minutes.
John Wall (36 points) and Victor Oladipo (33) both had season-highs for Houston. But with the Rockets (11-23) playing with just eight men, the outcome was never in doubt.
The Nets led 82-59 after a floater by Bruce Brown (17 points) with 7:35 left in the third. After coughing up a 21-8 run that allowed Houston to pulling within 90-80 on an Oladipo 3-pointer, the Nets responded. Landry Shamet’s corner 3 padded the lead back to 18.
And after Houston sliced it down again, to 105-97 on a Wall jumper, the Nets put it away for good. Harden followed a Claxton putback with a dagger 3 to give the Nets a 113-97 edge. The clock read 6:48 left, but the game was over.
“You could tell it meant something to [Harden],” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “This place is special to him. Houston means a lot to him — the city, the organization and what he accomplished here. I know it was a big game for him. I was proud of him for the way he handled it.”
Harden heads into the All-Star game as a legitimate candidate for another MVP, and being lauded for his leadership. But he says his game and leadership haven’t changed one iota.
“The same. It’s just, I get credit now,” Harden said. “Previously I wasn’t getting credit. Same leadership. I’ve been the same person. Haven’t been changed, not one bit.”