NBA

NBA playoffs 2021: Harden confident in improved mobility for Game 7 after struggling in Nets loss

By Sports Desk June 18, 2021

James Harden is confident he will have improved mobility for Game 7 of the Brooklyn Nets' Eastern Conference semi-final series after appearing limited in the 104-89 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Harden returned from a hamstring injury sustained in the series opener, playing both Game 5 and Game 6, but his mobility has visibly been restricted by the issue.

At one stage in Thursday's Game 6 defeat to the Bucks, former NBA MVP Harden swooped on a loose ball, offering up a fast-break opportunity but he instead held up play to ensure he did not need to sprint.

The Bucks levelled the series at 3-3, with forcing a deciding Game 7 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Saturday.

Harden's return coincided with Kyrie Irving's absence after he injured his ankle in Game 4, triggering further doubts about his fitness but the former insisted he was improving.

"It's not even about rust. It's about being able to move," Harden said after finishing with 16 points, five rebounds and seven assists from 40 minutes on court.

"Day by day I continue to get better. Game 5 was the first time I did any movement since I got hurt. Tonight was no different.

"I'm out there to do whatever it takes to win. I've got to be better on both ends of the floor which I will be on Game 7."

Nets team-mate Kevin Durant, who scored 32 points and had 11 rebounds for second-seeded Brooklyn, felt Harden seemed to be on the improve.

"He was moving better today. That's a tough, tough injury," Durant said post-game.

"He's gutting it out for us. We're not expecting too much from him movement wise. He's going out there and giving it his all. You've got to respect that."

Durant was not happy with the way his side defended Khris Middleton, who had a game-high 38 points and 10 rebounds.

"I think we fouled him three times shooting threes, which got his rhythm going," Durant said.

"He's a shot maker. We gave him confidence. Every time it felt like they got an offensive rebound he hit a three. He made timely shots for them."

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    The Blazers star is averaging 21.5 points per game this season – his worst record since the 2015-16 campaign – while shooting 39.7 per cent from the floor and just 30.2 per cent from three-point range. They would both represent career lows for a season. 

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    The Milwaukee Bucks looked out of sorts as they limped into November having lost three in a row with two of the defending champions' top scorers sidelined.

    Thirty days later at the season's quarter-mark, they are healthier and look capable of repeating as champs as they enter December riding an impressive seven-game winning streak.

    A mere 91 days after winning the franchise's first NBA title since 1971, Milwaukee raised its championship banner and then emphatically beat a Brooklyn Nets team expected to contend for this season's title by 23 points. In that convincing win, the starting five of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen and Brook Lopez combined for 82 points.

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    With Lopez still sidelined since the season opener with a sore back, the Bucks signed veteran big man DeMarcus Cousins on Tuesday to provide frontcourt depth.

    A four-time All-Star, Cousins isn't the same player he was in 2015 and 2016 when he earned second-team all-NBA honours, but the 31-year-old should be able to step in and provide size off the bench.

    Milwaukee got Holiday back in early November after he sat out one game with a right heel contusion and another five with a sprained left ankle, but by the time he returned Middleton was already out with COVID-19.

    The Bucks finished up October with a 3-4 record and were 4-6 on November 7, scoring fewer than 100 points in exactly half of their 10 games – this after failing to reach triple digits in just four regular-season games all last season.

    In 11 games since then, they've only dipped below the century mark once and their current win streak has coincided with the return of Middleton from his eight-game absence.

    It should be noted, though, that a 12-11 Los Angeles Lakers team playing without LeBron James is the only team the Bucks beat in their last seven games currently holding a winning record and the collective .325 winning percentage by their opponents from November 17-30 was the worst in the league for any team's opponents in that time span.

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    Antetokounmpo posted a plus-38 plus-minus rating in Milwaukee's 123-92 beatdown of the Orlando Magic last Monday, a game in which the Bucks had a 77-36 advantage at the half for the largest half-time lead in franchise history, while Holiday had a plus-37 rating – kicking off a historic stretch for the veteran point guard.

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    Holiday is averaging 19.8 points on 55.7 per cent shooting with a 61.5 eFG percentage in the last four contests following a three-game stretch in which he averaged 9.7 points on 30.6 per cent shooting with a 36.1 eFG percentage. In the four games since November 22, he's connecting on 69.2 per cent of 39 2-point tries and has made 8-of-9 jump shots from 10-15 feet.

    Holiday still hasn't found his touch from the perimeter, shooting 25.5 per cent on 51 3-point attempts in the last nine games, but that hasn't been much of a deterrent for Milwaukee as the team is getting outside help from an unlikely source.

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    Since his tear began on November 19, Portis and the Charlotte Hornets' LaMelo Ball are the only players in the league with 100-plus points, 60-plus rebounds and 15-plus 3-pointers made – and Ball has played one more game and made the same number of 3-pointers on 19 more tries.

    While Holiday and Portis have been putting up gaudy MVP-type number over the last week, the actual two-time league MVP continues to be his same outstanding self in the season's early going.

    Antetokounmpo has recorded 12 double-doubles in 20 games played and has a pair of 40-point games – only Curry has more with four. He leads all players with 127 field goals made in the restricted area, but defences simply can’t converge on him because he's adept at kicking the ball out to a teammate to knock down a 3-ponter – his 73 assists on made 3s are the most in the NBA.

    The trio of Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton together on the court has always been a boon for Milwaukee but lately it's been utterly dominant. The Bucks averaged a stellar 113.9 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton together on the court in their first 17 games before averaging 133.0 points per 100 possessions with that threesome in the last four.

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    Aside from leading the Nets by 12 points after 12 minutes in the opener with the starting five intact, the Bucks only had four other leads after one quarter in the first 15 games, recording a minus-0.9 scoring differential through one period in those contests. It's been a completely different story lately, as they’ve been putting away teams early, outscoring opponents by an average of 9.8 in the first quarter in the last six games.

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    Facing their opponents' starting five, Milwaukee is holding teams to 37.4 per cet shooting – including 32.8 per cent from beyond the arc – in the first quarter in the last six games after opponents shot 50.4 per cent from the field and 44.1 per cent from 3-point range in the first quarter in the first 15.

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    Beginning with the Hornets and running through a date with the Pistons on January 3, Milwaukee's opponents' winning percentage of .400 is the worst in the league. It's probably a lot to ask for the Bucks to continue to play at their current pace over this next stretch, but the opportunity is there for them to build a lead atop the Central come the new year.

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