"Honestly, I'm trying to figure all that out right now," the Nets star said after their 113-107 loss to the Phoenix Suns at Barclays Center. "I'm trying to figure it out. I'm trying to figure out when to score, when to be a playmaker, when to run the offense, when to do a little bit of everything."
In his first (partial) season in Brooklyn, Harden's adjustment was relatively seamless. He put up outrageous numbers when Kevin Durant was out of the lineup, and, the few times that both Durant and Kyrie Irving were both on the court with him, he picked his spots effectively. Harden didn't need to dominate all the time, but there was never any doubt that he could. In Year 2, it has been "a little difficult," he said, to find that same comfort level.
The subject came up because Harden had an ugly game against Phoenix. In 40 minutes, Harden scored 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting, missing all six of his 3-point attempts and only taking four free throws. His 14 assists and 13 rebounds were helpful, but his seven turnovers were damaging.
"Mikal Bridges did a really good job of just picking me up full-court the entire game," Harden said, rightfully crediting the Suns' All-Defense-caliber stopper. He then blamed himself, however, for "playing a little bit too fast and not making sure everybody's in the right positions."
Harden threw four errant passes in the first half. He threw another in the third quarter, less than a minute after dribbling the ball of his foot. He lost control of the ball on a crossover again in the fourth quarter, and the home crowd booed when it went out of bounds.
On one second-quarter possession, Harden tried, unsuccessfully, to post up Landry Shamet, tip in his miss and sneak a reverse layup past JaVale McGee. On another, he bonked a stepback 3 directly off the glass. In the third quarter, he got downhill off a double-screen and a spin move, but then airballed a floater over Deandre Ayton from outside the paint.
"It was a tough night for him," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "Some turnover issues, and didn't get a lot of rim looks."
Nash also pointed to the broader issue at play: When Harden isn't getting all the way to the rim, Brooklyn still needs to be able to generate good shots. It is on the team, Nash said, to recognize "nights like this, where it's not going to be classic or perfect or easy," and take advantage of the openings they have when teams pack the paint.
"Tonight, I think it was crowded in there," he said. "We didn't move the ball enough, so we gotta be able to move it, get off it quicker. So for him to draw a crowd and get off it, he's done his job. So I think on nights like this, where Ayton's sitting back in the lane and there's not a lot of space for him, he can still impact the game by initiating offense, by spraying the ball out, getting to the second side, playing an action on the second side and move their help-side (defense) around."
Against Phoenix, a disciplined team with the third-ranked defense in the NBA, it's particularly important to move the ball and make quick decisions. Left unsaid, though, was that everything Nash wants the Nets to do would be easier if they had more shooting. And if Harden is working through some uncertainty about his role, it can't be separated from the offensive environment in which he has found himself.
On nights like Saturday, they miss Irving, who remains unvaccinated and away from the team, and they miss Joe Harris, who has missed the last seven games with a sprained ankle. They also miss Shamet and Jeff Green from last year's roster. Brooklyn clawed its way out of a 22-point hole against Phoenix with switchable lineups that featured DeAndre' Bembry and James Johnson, neither of whom has real shooting gravity.
Opposing defenses haven't been particularly worried about Bruce Brown, Jevon Carter, Blake Griffin or Paul Millsap on the perimeter, either. Two weeks ago, the Golden State Warriors used a triangle-and-2 against Harden and Durant. Even with Durant, Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge shooting the lights out, Brooklyn's offense ranks 12th in the league. The coaching staff constantly has to sacrifice spacing for defense or vice versa.
Despite all of this, Harden and the Nets have largely gotten on track after a slow start. In his last 11 games, he has looked more like himself and averaged 22.5 points on 61 percent true shooting. At 14-6, Brooklyn is first in the East, and the loss to Phoenix was just its third since going 2-3 in its first five games. On Saturday, Harden said his hamstring is no longer bothering him.
The problem is that, 20 games in, the Nets haven't proven themselves against elite competition. Harden's subpar showing against the Suns is only notable insofar as it points to that problem.