The Nets have come back to win nine games where they were down double digits this season. Sunday night did not mark No. 10.
Instead James Harden no-showed the fourth quarter in an embarrassing Nets defensive effort: a 136-125 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night, and a performance that only could have been saved by Houston Harden heroics.
Harden was hardly that at Minnesota’s Target Center. He finished with only 13 points on 4-of-13 shooting from the field. The most concerning part of Harden’s performance was his fourth-quarter disappearing act.
He took all 13 of his shots through the first three quarters and did not attempt one in the fourth.
Nets head coach Steve Nash quickly diagnosed Harden’s struggles after the game. He said the Timberwolves doubled his pick-and-rolls and attributed Minnesota’s long and athletic player profile to The Beard’s decision not to take shots down the stretch.
Harden, however, said the Wolves defense didn’t hamper him at all.
“Nah. It was just me,” he said. “Just kind of being passive and not really attacking how I need to attack consistently. We had a lot of opportunities, a lot of rim opportunities and three opportunities, but I put that on me, just not being able to get to the basket like I needed to.”
There goes that word again: passive—the word we hate to see in the same sentence as Harden. He is the NBA’s 2018 Most Valuable Player of the Year. He is an unstoppable force and one of the most gifted scorers in NBA history.
When he chooses to be.
The Nets have asked a lot of Harden this year, and for good reason: They pay him $44.3 million in salary this season, and if they extend his contract like they extended Kevin Durant’s, Harden’s next deal projects to be in excess of $200 million. So he can handle a shifting landscape, roster turbulence—he can adjust to Kyrie Irving being in and out of the rotation.
Irving was spectacular, potentially the greatest road act in all of sports. He finished with a game-high 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting from the field, then said “I’m slowly crawling into my prime” after dazzling the crowd in Minnesota.
Irving banked in a mid-range shot after getting shoved, contorted his body and switched hands for a layup over two defenders and hit a number of pull-up threes to power the Nets offense. And he wasn’t alone: Patty Mills scored 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting and hit five threes on the night, and rookie Kessler Edwards logged yet another impressive performance with 15 points and impressive defense all night.
But an MVP-caliber performance from Harden was needed to mask a growing Nets’ issue: a defense that has regressed to the mean.
One thing that’s stood out about Harden, who attempted just four free throws on the night: When he doesn’t get the whistle—especially when he actually gets fouled—Harden has a tendency to check out of a play.
Sunday night in Minnesota was yet another stamp on Harden’s campaign for poster boy of the league’s foul-calling changes. The Wolves shot 31 free throws to Brooklyn’s 15, scoring 11 more points at the line—not coincidentally, the margin of victory.
“I don’t even wanna talk about it, but it’s definitely—when I get to the basket, it’s the same calls that other guys are getting,” Harden said. “Obviously you can’t call all of them, but there’s ones where there’s clearly stiff arms and trips and things like that, but on the other end there’s no consistency. It’s frustrating.”
Still, the Nets clawed back from a 15-point deficit, cutting the Timberwolves’ lead down to just four at the 9:44 mark in the fourth quarter. Harden checked in two minutes later, and the Wolves blew the cap off the Target Center. By the 4:41 mark, the Timberwolves led by 16.
Minnesota’s Big 3 of Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and emerging star Anthony Edwards
combined for 71 of the team’s 136 points.
That’s 26 more points than Minnesota’s average for the season, and the Wolves are climbing up the Western Conference standings, now in ownership of the West’s eighth seed .
“I don’t think the defense was sustainable,” Nash said of the second half. Minnesota scored 72 points in the first half alone, then went on a game-ending run after the Nets’ late-game rally. “If we’re going to come back in a game you’re down (10) at halftime, you’ve got to put together sustainable runs defensively. You’ve got to keep it going for longer stretches and we just never could get more than a couple minutes, two or three minutes of stops.”
This is where the camera shifts back to Harden, the superstar scorer whose gifts are supposed to help compensate for the team’s other shortcomings. Those gifts weren’t on display on Sunday, a microcosm of what can happen in later games if he doesn’t find consistency this season.
Meanwhile, the former inconsistent Nets forward Taurean Prince shot 6-of-6 from the field and hit a momentum-swinging three in the fourth quarter. How coincidental it is that Prince had a perfect night, while the player he was traded for struggled to score.