NEW YORK — Brooklyn Nets star James Harden was held to five points in his return to the starting lineup Tuesday night, but the Nets went on to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 114-108 in Game 5 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Brooklyn leads the series 3-2.
The decision to allow Harden to play was made after he tested his right hamstring on the court before tipoff. He played 37 minutes and shot 1-for-10 from the field, missing all eight of his 3-point attempts, and went scoreless in the first half. He added six rebounds, eight assists and four turnovers.
It was the first time Harden was available to play in a game since June 5, when he injured his hamstring in the first minute of Game 1 of the series. Since then, he has been dealing with what the team has called hamstring tightness.
“I’m not sure the level of risk,” head coach Steve Nash said before the game. “I think it is James’ decision. He wants to play. Ultimately, he wants to play. He’s been pushing.”
Harden participated in the Nets’ shootaround Tuesday morning with improvement in his hamstring, and that prompted the team to upgrade his status from doubtful to questionable for Game 5, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
The Nets are preparing to be without guard Kyrie Irving (right ankle sprain) for the rest of the series, sources said. The team hasn’t officially ruled Irving out beyond Game 5.
Nash said Sunday that the team would try to approach the injuries as isolated incidents and not let Irving’s ankle sprain rush Harden back to the floor before his hamstring is fully healed.
Still, Nash admitted Monday that Irving’s injury was a “driving” factor for Harden in pushing to return.
“He wants to play,” Nash said. “He wants to win a championship. He loves the playoffs and the ability to play this time of year. So, I think it’s been really difficult for him on how much he cares, how much time he puts in, how much effort he’s put in to get to this position.”
Irving was injured midway through the second quarter of Sunday’s Game 4 in Milwaukee when he landed awkwardly on Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s foot after making a layup over Jrue Holiday. Antetokounmpo crashed the paint in what was an attempt to help Holiday, who was the primary defender.
Irving remained on the ground for several minutes as Nash and the team’s athletic trainers attended to him. Eventually, Irving walked to the locker room without assistance but was limping. He left the arena in a walking boot and on crutches. An MRI on Monday confirmed Irving’s ankle sprain.
The Nets have battled injuries all season. The Big Three of Harden, Irving and Kevin Durant played just eight games together in the regular season and six games together in the playoffs — including the game in which Harden was injured after just 43 seconds. Harden missed 18 games in the regular season with a hamstring strain, and before that he missed two with hamstring tightness.
During warm-ups Tuesday, Harden was moving well as he shot, did cutting motions and threw passes to Jeff Green. Harden had protective kinesiology tape stretched over his right hamstring.
“We have to support him the best way we can,” Nash said of Harden, “and be an aid for him to figure this out, but it’s a tricky situation — but one that we are willing to go down with James. He’s just been unbelievable for us this year, and we want to support him.”