Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas attempted to use the same tone and excitement Wednesday night when James Harden’s turn came up in the starting lineup introductions as he did throughout the previous eight seasons.
The circumstances, of course, were quite different. So was the reaction from Houston Rockets fans, who greeted Harden with a mixture of cheers and boos as the 2017-18 MVP returned to face his former team for the first time since his request to be traded to the Brooklyn Nets was granted seven weeks ago.
“As far as playing in Houston, a lot of mixed emotions for the fans, but I knew that was going to happen,” Harden said. “I just wanted to come out here and give them a show.”
Harden succeeded with the sort of spectacular performance that has been almost routine for him since he joined the Nets. He had 29 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists to lead Brooklyn to a 132-114 win over the injury-ravaged Rockets; it was his eighth triple-double in 23 games for the Nets, who enter the All-Star break having won 10 of their past 11 games.
It was the 13th straight loss for the Rockets, who were limited to eight available players as the franchise’s longest losing streak in two decades was extended into the break.
“The way we’ve been losing, we definitely do need a break to clear our minds, find ourselves, try to get some guys healthy, try to get a full team again,” said Rockets point guard John Wall, who scored 36 points on 12-of-30 shooting in 41 minutes. “I don’t know when the last time we had a full team. Tonight, we went in with only eight guys, but we didn’t stop fighting. We kept competing, we kept battling, and that’s one thing you can respect.”
A smattering of fans in the reduced-capacity crowd booed Harden every time he touched the ball early in the game, expressing their displeasure of Harden’s forcing the Rockets to trade him, a divorce process he has acknowledged became more tense and bitter than he would have liked. Harden, who according to Elias Sports Bureau research became the sixth player to post a triple-double in his first game against his former team, said the boos didn’t impact him.
“Once I get on that court, it’s just trying to win,” said Harden, who was 10-of-15 from the floor. “I’m not really worried about anything else. That was kind of my feeling — win the game and do whatever it takes to do what you’ve been doing. I wasn’t trying to show off, wasn’t trying to do anything out of the ordinary that I haven’t been doing.”
The Rockets as an organization gave Harden a warm welcome back to Houston. He chatted with and hugged several Houston staffers and players before and after the contest. A tribute video, featuring highlights from Harden’s eight seasons in Houston and his charitable acts in the community, played during the first timeout of the game.
“You could tell it meant something to him,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “This place is special for James. Houston means a lot to him — the city, the organization, what he accomplished here with this team. I know it was a big game for him. I’m proud of the way he handled it.”
Harden said he learned “on the internet” on Tuesday that Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta plans to eventually retire Harden’s No. 13 jersey and hang it in the Toyota Center rafters.
“My reaction was hopefully I did something right. Obviously, I came up short of a championship, but the work on and off the court that [I] put in over those past eight years was elite,” Harden said. “I think that’s the only thing I didn’t do or didn’t accomplish, was a championship, which is difficult to attain. But as far as bringing excitement to this city, taking care of the fans on and off the court, is something I tried to contribute, so hopefully, that outweighs that [lack of a championship].”
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