The 2020-21 NBA season has finally reached its conclusion. An exciting start, followed by a tumultuous and injury-riddled middle was then proceeded by a thrilling and exhilarating finish with the addition of the play-in format making every possible playoff seed worth more than it was in normal NBA seasons. With the playoffs underway, every year there are players who step up and help their teams reach the levels they ultimately want to achieve; an NBA championship. Unfortunately, only one team can win that, but that won’t stop the others from trying, so we’re going to run through some players throughout the week who will be of note in determining how these playoffs go down. Four installments of this miniseries have been completed, and now is time for the grand finale. Our last playoff primer is going to look at James Harden of the Brooklyn Nets.

It may seem weird that a team with one superstar and another all-star in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving would *need* another superstar like James Harden, but the Nets kind of do. James Harden is one of the five best playmakers in the NBA. You can only count on a single finger the number of playmakers you’d prefer over Harden. That’s it. He’s that good. And he’s made a difference doing exactly that in Brooklyn.

Kevin Durant is many things, but he’s not the kind of player I’d want bringing the ball up the floor all night. He’s just not that type of player. Kyrie Irving isn’t exactly either. Both are dynamic scorers, guys whose priorities aren’t to get others the best shot possible. Durant and Irving are certainly capable; you don’t get to where these guys are in the league without it. But neither is as good at it as Harden. Lots of times you can see Durant or Irving pound the ball into traffic or be a second too late making the correct read. This play here is a good example of such a transgression. Durant gets trapped in the pick and roll by Kenrich Williams and Isaiah Roby of his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant takes two dribbles only to be seduced directly into the trap, where he is forced to pass to his release valve in Jarrett Allen (now on the Cleveland Cavaliers), only for the pass to be picked off by Hamidou Diallo (now on the Detroit Pistons). 

James Harden has seen this type of defensive look millions of times. Way more weird and aggressive types of looks, at that. He better handles these situations and puts Durant and Irving (and the millions of shooters and lob threats the Nets have) in their proper spots: to get buckets. The Nets’ assist percentage and assist ratio both improve when Harden is on the floor alongside both Durant and Irving as opposed when he isn’t, according to NBA.com. The Nets’ Net Rating jumps from +5.3 to +7.2 when those two stars gain Harden on the floor. There’s a reason why the Nets have gone just 6-5 in games Durant and Irving have shared the floor together without Harden, according to Statmuse. Playmaking chops go a big way in the postseason, and Harden has it.

As for the limited amount of time these three have shared on the court this season, I don’t think that is as big a deal. In the entire regular season, Durant, Harden, and Irving have played a combined 202 minutes. That’s it. That’s less than the run time for the first season of ‘Falcon and the Winter Soldier.’ But I think the Nets will be fine. The biggest dynamic that could ruin the chemistry with this team was if Kyrie Irving were to get disgruntled with the number of touches he got in a given game. That became a moot point very quickly after Irving told Harden that Harden is and should be the point guard of this team. It also helped that of all the All-Star two-man pairings, the duo that played the most amount of games for the Nets this season was Harden and Irving. Those two played 500 minutes together without Durant on the floor this season, and were +35 in those minutes with a Net Rating of +2.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. Once those two got comfortable with each other’s games, all the roles on the team coalesced into their proper spots. Durant is arguably the most malleable player in the NBA. He will fit in wherever, whenever, however, the team needs him to. No one is ever going to be able to stop Durant from getting buckets. But if the chemistry between those other two were ever going to cause a rift within the team, that would hold the Nets back more than anything. Obviously, that seems far from the case. 

If the Nets have a problem that could hinder their chances of winning the title, it would be on the defensive end of the floor. Just about no one on the team outside of Bruce Brown is exactly who you would call a stopper. The Nets’ defensive rating allows teams to score 113.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, ranking 22nd in the entire NBA. Since the NBA began tracking this stuff, only two teams have won the championship with a defensive rating outside of the top 10: the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers who dogged the regular season and also coincidentally finished with the 22nd ranked defense only to go 15-1 in the playoffs to finish off a repeat, and the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors, who drastically failed from being a top 10 defense by ending the year with the… 11th ranked defense. But this is the bed they made by trading for James Harden. They built this team under the same goal and premise Houston built Harden’s former Rockets squads: we’re going to win by out-scoring you. Except instead of Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook surrounded by guys that shoot a lot of threes but don’t make as many as you’d want them to make, the Nets gave Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and a poop-ton of awesome shooters. Offense has been inflated this season and in the last couple of seasons, but that approach has resulted in the Nets boasting the most efficient offense of all time. I guess you can make that work! Whether they can get the requisite stops in the postseason remains to be seen, but few teams have the capabilities to match their firepower, that’s for sure.

It’s funny and fitting that James Harden is the last name I bring up to watch in the 2021 playoffs. This season began with Harden violating health and safety protocols in an attempt to force his way away from the sinking ship that was the Houston Rockets and create the latest super-team of the modern era. Harden has made two conference finals as a star since getting to the Finals as the sixth man in Oklahoma City. He’s had great playoff games, but not many signature moments that will remain in our memories forever. He had the block on Luguentz Dort in the first round of the playoffs a year ago but proceeded to be handed a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers in their route to a championship. Harden has had many flameouts, most notably a 2-11 doozy against the San Antonio Spurs that was so bad that ESPN’s Stephen A Smith said James Harden looked like he was ‘drugged’ on the floor. Who can forget Houston missing 27 consecutive threes in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals? It’s why he worked his way to get to Brooklyn. It’s why all three of their stars did. Kyrie Irving’s last game as a Boston Celtic was one of the most dreadful performances I’ve ever seen. Almost everyone (not me) applies an asterisk with Kevin Durant’s rings in Golden State. This is all three of those guys’ chances at redemption. All three of them have something to prove. To me, all three of those guys’ fates lays upon the shoulders of James Harden. Whether or not he can deliver is the single thing I’m looking forward to finding out the most in the NBA playoffs.

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