Take a look at your future, Brooklyn.
Kevin Durant and James Harden combined for 66 points and 20 assists, and Joe Harris added six 3-pointers to lift the Nets to a 119-112 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday. The Nets’ superstar duo took turns making plays down the stretch to stave off a feisty and desperate Pelicans team searching for just their second win in 13 tries.
The performance was typical of Durant, but refreshing for Harden, whose emergence as a co-star in Brooklyn was delayed by a summer-long rehab for a nagging right hamstring injury. It’s been a frustratingly slow process for Harden, who is a former league MVP accustomed to scoring 30-40 points with 10 or more assists on a whim.
Harden hung 39 points and 12 assists on the Pelicans on Friday night. He is back, and his coming out party was in New Orleans.
Which made Brooklyn’s botched outing against the Pelicans even more concerning. The Pelicans are owners of the NBA’s worst record. Zion Williamson has yet to return from surgery on his right foot, and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram has been sidelined with a hip injury.
The Nets have arguably the best player in the world on their roster, and Harden’s progression this season has been promising. It should have been, as Durant’s moniker indicates, “easy money.”
But after the Nets built a lead as large as 21 points in the third quarter, they flushed it down the toilet in the fourth. Durant was efficient early on, as was Joe Harris, who made his first six 3-pointers of the night, but the Nets allowed the young and scrappy Pelicans to claw back into the game to take a lead at the 4:36 mark of the fourth quarter.
On a broken possession, Brooklyn’s fate hinged on a Bruce Brown corner three, the only offense they could generate against the league-worst Pelicans.
Durant finished with 28 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, and Harris made all six of his 3s in the first half, including five in the first quarter. The Nets have had offensive woes in recent games but hung 66 points on the Pelicans in the first half.
That energy exerted on offense must have sapped the Nets of their new and improved defense. They allowed the league-worst Pelicans to score 59 in the first half, then take a late-game lead.
That is not the ideal. Especially not of a championship contender.
That’s why you sign players like Harden and Durant, anyway. Lesser opponents can muck the game, crash the glass and press on defense, but there is no defense for the inevitable.
Durant hit contested shot after contested shot. Harden’s offense, for the first time, consistently lifted Durant all game.
Harden looked like his old self. He nailed catch-and-shoot 3s consistently all night and even drew a foul on a step-back 3. The Beard shot 11 of 15 from the foul line, putting pressure on the rim and making plays in the paint.
Durant assumed playmaking responsibilities down the stretch and found Blake Griffin on a roll to the rim, before finding Harden wide open for a top-of-the-key dagger that gave the Nets a seven-point lead with 29 seconds to go.
Durant has proven he’s always on, and Harden is just starting to heat up. Friday night was a look into the future if the Nets can stay healthy. Now, they just need to balance their strong offense with keeping the defense afloat.