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James Harden is the Brooklyn Nets' Most Important Player in series vs. Milwaukee Bucks

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Brooklyn’s James Harden dribbled between his legs back and forth at the top of the 3-point line, hypnotizing Boston’s defense until Joe Harris emerged open at the 3-point line.

Pass. Swish.

Harden did that over and over against the Celtics until the series ended with Harden averaging 27.8 points, 10.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds and shooting 55.6% from the field and 47.5% on 3-pointers.

That’s the same James Harden who rarely played during the final six weeks of the NBA’s regular season. It was impossible to tell based on his performance in Brooklyn’s 4-1 series victory over Boston in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Having played just three games since April 1, Harden barged into the playoffs with a near triple-double in Game 1 and closed out the series with a 34-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in Game 5.

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“I thought he was great,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “Played at an extremely high level. Took another jump from ‘got injured to rehab to return to play to playing at the highest level.’ He did it really well. I was impressed not only with the level of play but how he was able to do it in a short period of time. I would’ve almost expected it to take a little longer for him to reach the levels he reached early in the series. It’s testament to how talented he is and how much he wants it.

With Milwaukee and its strong defense up next for the Nets in this compelling second-round matchup, Harden is Brooklyn’s Most Important Player.

Yes, Kevin Durant is Brooklyn’s best scorer and Kyrie Irving is its best shot-maker, but Harden is the key to opening up the Nets’ offense with his playmaking.

“He’s a willing passer,” Durant said. “He’s looking to pass. He’s looking to get guys shots.”

The Nets might be the most difficult team in the league to guard when all three are on the court. Each player can take a defender one-on-one, double-teaming one of them leaves someone open.

Harden is a wrecking ball with precision engineering – a persistent and effective combination of force and finesse. Harden’s ability to shoot 3s, drive to the basket and either shoot or pass make Durant and Irving that much more dangerous. In Game 4, Durant had 42 points, Irving 39 and Harden 23 – plus 18 assists.

“You guys see how big a role he plays in our offense,” Nets forward Blake Griffin said. “Even when he’s not scoring, the way he facilitates a game – not just passing the basketball – just the way he sees the game and gets everybody in positions is huge for us.”

Durant, Harden and Irving played just eight games and 202 minutes together this season because of injuries, COVID-19 health and safety protocols and personal reasons.

Harden missed 21 of Brooklyn’s final 24 games with a strained hamstring. The Nets had to make a calculated risk. The dilemma: Make sure Harden was as healthy as possible for the playoffs or try to bring him back in the regular season so Brooklyn’s Big 3 could work on that continuity.

James Harden averaged 27.8 points, 10.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the first round.
James Harden averaged 27.8 points, 10.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the first round.

There was only one choice. Chemistry, they could build on the fly. But if Harden re-injured his hamstring and was unavailable for the playoffs, that scenario was worse than struggling with chemistry issues.

Turns out, as Irving said, “Basketball is basketball. Once we step on the floor, then it’s who can score the most and who can get the most stops.”

Besides, those concerns about whether Harden could fit in and whether he could not only share the basketball but play offensive possessions without touching the ball never materialized.

“The excitement and vision of us playing together, I think that’s what we were missing the whole season,” Harden said. “That’s what was more exciting. We weren’t even worried about the playoff run. We were just happy to be on the court together. It’s great to get one series out of the way.”

Against Boston, Durant, Harden and Irving scored 426 of Brooklyn’s 617 points, shooting a combined 53.1% from the field, including 45.2% on 3-pointers. Harden accounted for 53 of Brooklyn’s 120 assists. In five playoff games, they’ve already spent 130 minutes on the court together and outscored the Celtics 371-305 in that time.

Milwaukee's top-10 defense presents a stiffer challenge.

“If us three are on the same page and playing well and communicate with the rest of the guys where to be on both ends of the ball,” Harden said, “I’ll take our chances against anybody.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nets have Big 3, but James Harden emerging as Most Important Player