BROOKLYN, N.Y. — It only took 43 seconds for the tenor of the Eastern Conference semifinal showdown between the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks to be turned on its head.
That was all the time James Harden spent on the court in Game 1 on Saturday night before limping back to the locker room. And while Brooklyn went on to claim a 115-107 victory to open this best-of-seven affair, the focus afterward was understandably on Harden and his potential availability for the remainder of the series.
“You know we got a lot thrown at us this year, so we were, in a sense, well trained for this event,” Nets coach Steve Nash said after the game. “But you never want to see that for someone like James, who is such an important player and such an incredible player and cares so much.
“I’m heartbroken for him. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if he’s playing the next game, if he’s out. I have no idea. But I’m heartbroken for him that he had to miss tonight.”
The play the injury occurred on was innocuous — a simple drive against Bucks guard Jrue Holiday. But after Harden lofted a pass to the opposite corner, he landed and immediately grabbed at his right hamstring. The Nets lost the ball out of bounds, ran another play and then Milwaukee took the ball down to the opposite end of the court — but in that entire stretch, Harden never moved at a faster pace than a walk. Then, when play stopped at the other end, Harden just walked off the court and straight into the locker room.
A team spokesperson later told ESPN’s Malika Andrews that he went to get an MRI — results the Nets were still waiting for postgame.
“I didn’t realize what had happened until he had started walking off the court, but we supposed to run [a] play and he wasn’t in his spot and I looked at him, he was grimacing,” said Kevin Durant, who had 29 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Nets to the win. “It just sucks. It sucks. It sucks because I want him to be out there.
“I know how much he cares. I know how much he wants to be in this moment. It sucks. Wishing him a speedy recovery. Keep him involved as much as possible. It’s just a bad break.”
What makes the injury all the more concerning for Brooklyn, as far as Harden’s ability to return in the series is concerned, is that this is the same hamstring that saw him miss over a month before returning for the final week of the regular season.
He then returned to play in two games before the postseason began, and he had no issues in Brooklyn’s five-game demolition of the Boston Celtics in the first round.
Trying to get past the much more formidable Bucks, however, was expected to be a trickier task — and that was before Brooklyn lost one of its pillars just moments into the highly anticipated series.
“I mean, it’s never easy to lose anybody, especially this time of the year where we just wanna have fun playing basketball and playing the right way and competing at a high level,” said Kyrie Irving, who had 25 points and eight assists in 45 minutes. “We’re obviously out there for bigger reasons, so when you see the game snatched away so early from one of our brothers, we feel for him, and we just had to make a quick adjustment and just adjust from there.
“That’s the best thing we can do. We just came in the huddle, made sure that everybody on the bench knew kind of the situation we were in, and like I said, we just played out from there. It went our way tonight, but obviously, we’re gonna feel his loss no matter what.”
The sting of that loss, at least for one night, was removed thanks to the impressive play of Brooklyn’s “others.” Blake Griffin had a renaissance performance, finishing with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 3 assists in 35 minutes — including hitting four 3-pointers — before getting a standing ovation when he fouled out late in the fourth quarter. Journeyman guard Mike James came off the bench and played 30 minutes, finishing with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists.
As a team, the Nets shot 15-for-40 from 3-point range, while the Bucks were just 6-for-30 from deep. And after Milwaukee ravaged the offensive glass in the first quarter, getting eight offensive rebounds in those opening 12 minutes alone, the Nets held the Bucks to a total of seven over the final three quarters — a far more manageable number.
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo compared Milwaukee’s performance to how it looked in its opening game against the Miami Heat in the first round. But while the Bucks were able to survive that game in overtime, the Nets, on the other hand, are a far more talented team — even without Harden on the court.
“I think it was a little bit of everything,” said Antetokounmpo, who had 34 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals but committed five turnovers in 35 minutes. “Shots didn’t go in. Did not compete as hard as we wanted defensively, still got to step that up a little bit, make it as tough for them as possible.
“We didn’t play for a week, everybody had the adrenaline going, the jitters, and wasn’t able to calm down as a team and take a breath and play the right way, find our shots. But obviously, we were able to win that game. Now, you’re playing a team that’s way better offensively, and they made a lot of shots. So, obviously, we’ve just got to come out in Game 2 and do a better job.
And, for their part, the Nets weren’t ready to say the series was over, either. Instead, they already were looking ahead to Game 2 on Monday night back in Brooklyn, where the Nets will hope to extend their lead in this series whether Harden is available or not but know the Bucks will be eager to remove the bitter tastes from their mouths following an ugly showing in Game 1.
“Yeah, it don’t really matter, man,” Irving said of how the Nets played in Game 1. “It was just one game. They’re not going to shoot that way, you know, probably next game or the rest of the series because they’re gonna be focused. They’re gonna get some even better shots and other guys are going to play with a higher sense of verve, and you just have to be ready for that.
“I think we did a great job contesting a few different plays. They got some easy ones. And we just want to clean that up. But we’re playing against great players. So, we know they’re going to shoot better. We just have to continue to contest and be in the right spot.”