Despite all the hue and cry about James Harden not getting calls, he’s started finding his way to the line. But those shooting woes? That inability to get to the rim? That’s still just as glaring as Kyrie Irving’s absence.
It remains to be seen if either changes anytime soon.
As Harden works to regain his lost explosion, he and Kevin Durant are facing defenses packed to stop their drives. The Nets have lacked spacing without Irving and Joe Harris, and have missed Irving’s penetration as well.
And when asked specifically how he’s tried to balance the need to both score and facilitate in Irving’s absence, Harden acknowledged it’s been tough. And ongoing, with no sign of Irving getting vaccinated or New York loosening its mandates.
“Honestly, I’m trying to figure all that out right now,” Harden said after Saturday’s loss to Phoenix. “I’m trying to figure out when to score, when to be a playmaker, when to run offense, when to do a little bit of everything. Just trying to figure it out. It’s been a little difficult, especially since — well, whatever — it’s been a little difficult. But I’m just trying to figure it out.”
Without Irving, the Nets are going to need both Durant and Harden playing at a star level against top teams. So far Harden — booed at home Saturday — hasn’t been close.
That’s the biggest reason they’ve been able to defensively grind out an undefeated mark against losing teams, but gone just 6-6 versus those .500 or better.
The Nets lost to Milwaukee by 23 on Oct, 19, and to Miami by 13 eight days later. They got routed by 23 again on Nov. 8, this time in Chicago. There was the 18-point defeat versus Golden State and finally Saturday’s loss to the Suns.
“It’s tough for anybody to drive into a packed lane,” Durant said. “I think once we come off it, move it and get shots it’ll start to loosen up.”
That ball movement is going to have to replace the Nets’ lost dribble penetration.
Bereft of Irving’s ability to put the ball on the deck and drive, the Nets are a team of jump shooters. And until Harris’ ankle heals, that shooting will be shorthanded.
“We’ve got to be able to move and get off it quicker,” head coach Steve Nash said. “For him to draw a crowd and get off it, he’s done his job. It’s on nights where [foes] are sitting back in the lane and there’s not a lot of space for him, he can still impact the game by initiating offense, spraying the ball out and getting to the second side, playing actions on the second side, and move their help side around.
“That’s just a part of our team, recognizing nights where it’s not going to be classic or perfect or easy.”
It may not be classic, perfect or easy for awhile.
With an anticipated spike in COVID-19 due to the Omicron variant — Gov. Kathy Hochul ordered a halt on elective surgeries to brace for it — it’s hard to predict either loosened mandates or an Irving heel-turn.
His absence has caused Harden’s usage rate to spike, and the his turnovers with it; that’s just a given. But Harden’s scoring (20.3), shooting percentage (.406) and two-point shooting (.455) are all his lowest since becoming a starter.
Harden’s attempts in the restricted area have dipped from 6.6 per game in 2018-19 and 6.3 in 2019-20 down to 4.8 last season and just three coming into Tuesday. And even when he’s been able to drive he hasn’t finished, is shooting percentage at the rim falling from .684 last season all the way to .580.
“That’s part of our growth too, is trying to figure out ways for him to be effective even if he’s not getting to the rim all night. Can we draw a crowd and generate offense on the second side?” Nash said. “He can still rebound and make plays for others; but can we take advantage on those nights where he gets into the paint and it’s not all-or-nothing on him. That’s a part of our growth.”