james harden brooklyn nets
Courtesy Instagram: Brooklyn Nets

James Harden is making his return to Houston for the first time since forcing the Rockets to trade him to the Brooklyn Nets.

Danny Small

James Harden is on top of the world. He’s playing on an NBA Finals contender with two other superstars and winning Eastern Conference Player of the Month in his first full month with the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets still need to tighten up things defensively and smooth out a few rough edges on the fringes of the roster, but there’s no denying that they are one of the favorites to win it all with Harden in the fold. Brooklyn has absolutely no regrets about trading a haul of picks and players for the former MVP.

While the Houston Rockets might not regret moving on from the disgruntled star, they have fallen on hard times since dealing away their long-time franchise centerpiece. The Rockets enter Wednesday’s game against the Nets on a 12-game slide.

Brooklyn represents Houston’s last chance to steal a win before the All-Star break. However, the much more likely scenario is that Harden erupts against his former team and they are forced to enter the break with a 13-game losing streak hanging over their heads.

Harden is playing some of the best basketball of his career and no, that is not an exaggeration. Fully embracing his role as a point guard who plays more like a floor general than a one-man show, the three-time scoring champion is dishing out more assists than he ever has before (11.3 per game in Brooklyn).

There’s a time and place for Harden to go full iso-ball like he did night in and night out for Houston, but when he’s sharing the floor with Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant, he’s always looking to pass first.

As it stands, the Nets can afford to handle Durant with kid gloves as he deals with a lingering hamstring issue. Harden and Irving are the most dynamic offensive duo in the NBA, leading Brooklyn to nine wins in their last 10 games.

The term “revenge game” is tossed around a lot, but it doesn’t sound like Harden is looking for vengeance. He is treating this more like a homecoming than a revenge game.

“Yeah, I’m excited just to go back to Houston where I basically had an unbelievable career there,” Harden said. “They showed me mad love and respect and I’m just excited to be playing in front of those fans. Yeah, I’m pretty excited.”

When asked about Harden’s return to Houston, Irving downplayed the hype. If anyone in the NBA understands what it’s like to play a former team with the spotlight shining bright, it’s him.

“Everybody at home, enjoy the game,” Kyrie Irving said per Michael Scotto of HoopsHype. “There will be no tension or no shit-talking going on the court or about James in my presence or anybody else’s presence. We’re coming to Houston to enjoy the game of basketball.”

It’s still unclear how the fans in Houston or Rockets players will react to Harden’s return, but the owner, Tillman Fertitta, is ready to welcome him back with open arms. In a somewhat surprising announcement on Tuesday, Fertitta told Mark Berman of FOX 26 that the Rockets plan to retire Harden’s No. 13.

“James Harden will always be a Rocket,” Fertitta said. “Of course we will retire his jersey. He made my first three years of owning this franchise unforgettable. The success he brought this franchise over eight years and the memories he created for our fan base/community is truly remarkable.”

Although Fertitta might be willing to bury the hatchet, everyone in Houston might not feel the same way. Harden left scorched Earth behind him as he forced his way to Brooklyn. Even he admits that he could have handled the situation better.

But what’s past is prologue. Harden is in a better place and he’s not looking back.

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