Let's just say this straight out: James Harden was sensational in his Brooklyn Nets debut. Yes, he committed nine turnovers. Yes, he shot just 3 of 10 from three. But he was in total control all night, snapping passes all over, immediately displaying an easy feel for the delicate balance of when to create for himself, and when to get his teammates going, as the Nets separated from Orlando late for a 122-115 victory.
Harden's chemistry with Kevin Durant looks like they never stopped playing together as the two combined for an astounding 74 points, 19 assists and 16 rebounds. Durant was poetic with 42 of the most effortless points you'll ever see as his incredible start to the season continues.
For Harden's part, with 32 points, 14 assists, 12 rebounds and four steals, he became the first player in NBA history to post a 30-point triple-double in his debut with a new team. He's also already etched his name in the Nets record book, as those 14 assists are a franchise high for anyone in a team debut and tie the high-water mark since the organization moved to Brooklyn.
Harden's patience and playmaking were the two biggest takeaways from this debut. How he, and everyone around him, approach the offensive balance will continue to evolve, likely for the rest of the regular season, and Kyrie Irving's return will be another wrinkle, but it's already clear that Harden is prepared to embrace his role as an orchestrator. Look at all the different ways he created shots for his teammates Saturday night:
.@JHarden13's 14 AST-debut made him look like he's been playing in Brooklyn for a long time. 😮 #OnlyHere #BrooklynTogether— NBA Philippines (@NBA_Philippines) January 17, 2021
Catch the intense action and riveting drama unfold on NBA TV Philippines, @OneSportsPHL, and @TV5manila! 📺 pic.twitter.com/rue7Y31Nir
Harden, who's one of just six players in NBA history to have won both a scoring and assist title, has always been a fantastic passer, not just for his creativity, court sense and timing, but because he's deadly accurate, rarely forcing rollers or spot-up shooters to adjust to passes that are even marginally off the mark. He hits you squarely in the pocket, and the results reflect that rhythm.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, the Nets shot 7 for 12 in the first half when on the receiving end of a Harden pass, and they were a perfect 5 for 5, including 2 for 2 from three, when the shooter found himself unguarded. Speaking of unguarded, Joe Harris, who just happens to be one of the best shooters on the planet, might not shoot another contested shot all season with the attention his teammates are going to garner. Get used to a lot of triples like this:
Harris was also the beneficiary of his teammates' gravity on the first possession of the game. Watch here as Harden and Durant move to cross-screen for one another, and as all the eyeballs go to them, Harris cuts to the hoop for a layup.
KD screening for James Harden up top as BKN goes into their post split action with DeAndre Jordan.— Karens In Paris (@NekiasNBA) January 16, 2021
Watch Cole Anthony's eyes. Focused on the action up top. Joe Harris sneaks right in.
Rookie mistake ball-watching, but that's a quick example of the gravity BKN's superstars have pic.twitter.com/IA64npgEBf
In Houston, Harden's gravity was never really a thing because he always had the ball. In Brooklyn, that's not going to be the case. His off-ball movement can, and should, be a weapon, just as Durant's and Irving's should when Harden has possession. When all three are playing together, two of them should constantly be creating one-on-one lanes for the third with even a slight bit of activity.
What's scary is that in a lot of cases, that won't even be necessary. We're talking about literally probably the three best one-on-one scorers in the world, on the same team. They can play your turn-my turn offense in their sleep. Whenever a dry spell hits, Harden and Durant can simply go into a pick and roll and get a good shot every single time as defenders make the impossible choice of which one to follow.
For three years Durant benefited from playing alongside Stephen Curry, finding himself with more wide-open shots than he ever saw in Oklahoma City, and that dynamic should continue with Harden and Irving. Watch here as Harden methodically sucks the entire defense into the paint, forcing everyone to engage with him as the scorer and Reggie Perry as the roller, leaving Durant all by his lonesome for a warmup jumper.
Durant was 5 for 8 on 3-pointers Saturday night. Harden never had a 3-point shooter like Durant as a co-star in Houston, and they are going to make maddeningly easy music together with that kind of spacing.
Brooklyn's defense still needs work. They're a good bet to pick up another wing defender and/or a big man to protect the rim after the departure of Jarrett Allen (preferably one who can also be a pick-and-pop threat given how available those looks will be with Harden, Durant and Irving initiating) either by trade or in the buyout market.
Working Irving into the mix will be a test. But after one game, the outrageous skill and IQ that both Harden and Durant possess made it pretty clear this isn't going to be a terribly rough transition. Irving is incredibly smart on the court, too. They will figure this thing out, and when they do, they are going to be terrifying, perhaps borderline unstoppable, offensively.