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The Beard was back. And he was brilliant.
After five weeks away, James Harden finally returned to the court and made his comeback a victorious one. He led the Nets to a 128-116 rout of the Spurs before 1,773 at Barclays Center.
In his first action since April 5, Harden had 18 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. He missed 18 straight games with a strained hamstring, but looked like he never missed a beat.
“This is the longest I’ve ever been out in my career. It’s been frustrating,” Harden said in an on-court TV interview. “This last month I just think about how much I cherish the game.”
Landry Shamet had a team-high 21 points to lead eight Nets in double figures. They shot 60.8 percent with Harden’s impact on the offense clear.
By the time Harden checked out with 1:12 left, the Nets had the game well in hand. He played just 26 minutes and is being treated with kid gloves, but just having him back on the floor was a huge lift for the Nets.
“He’ll be on a minutes restriction. We’ll monitor that and make sure that we can try to mitigate the risk as much as possible as he gets back into play,” coach Steve Nash said. “But that’s the plan, similar to when Kevin [Durant] returned.”
Brooklyn improved to 28-7 when Harden plays this season, and is just 11-11 when he doesn’t. That underscores his importance for the playoffs — with the Nets moving 1 ½ games ahead of third-seeded Milwaukee in the chase for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
“James just wants to play. He wants to get his rhythm and prepare for the playoffs,” Nash said. “For us we can go either way. We support him in that he’s cleared to play and he wants to play.
“There is importance in him finding his rhythm and his confidence and getting back to playing, and it’s difficult to do that without game time. These are the risks you have to take, and you take a deep breath. He’s done all the work and he’s cleared. He’s done his high-intensity loads and workouts and responded. People smarter than I would say this [is] safe.”
Brooklyn (46-24) has bounced back from a season-worst four-game losing skid with a three-game winning streak. The Nets got Wednesday’s victory without Kyrie Irving, who sustained a facial contusion Tuesday night in Chicago.
Nothing was going to ruin Harden’s return.
After a withering defensive performance in the first quarter, Brooklyn led 35-20 on a Shamet 3-pointer, snapping his string of 11 straight misses from deep stretching back to the second quarter of the May 4 loss in Milwaukee.
The Nets’ ball movement was impressive, with 10 assists on 65.2 percent shooting. Meanwhile, the disjointed-looking Spurs didn’t have a single assist.
Mike James — whose second and final 10-day contract is set to expire — continued to state his case for being kept through the playoffs. He had nine first-quarter points to help spot Brooklyn to that 15-point edge, and gave way to Harden.
The Nets’ MVP candidate checked in with 8:06 left in the second quarter to a standing ovation. And after seeing the lead cut to 41-40, Harden helped the Nets regain their footing and open it back up to 57-51 at the break.
Harden put a move on Devin Vassell — nearly sending the San Antonio rookie stumbling backwards — drilling a stepback 3-pointer and earning a foul to boot on Vassell’s futile attempt at a recovery.
Brooklyn led 96-81 after three, the only negative Jeff Green taking a nasty spill on the baseline at end of quarter, walking off gingerly favoring his ankle. But he checked back in and saw the lead swell to 19 in the fourth.
The defense was smothering at times, Nic Claxton (18 points) actually recovering over and over to contest three shots in a single Spurs possession. And this came against a Spurs (33-36) team that had lit up the Bucks for 146 points in its previous game on Monday.
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