As expected, James Harden waxed ecstatic in the aftermath of his first match with the Nets. He would have been happy in any case; he moved to strut his stuff in a uniform other than that of the Rockets since the offseason, so seeing his machinations pay off was in and of itself cause for joy. That he wound up rewriting National Basketball Association history in posting a 30-point triple-double gave him even more reason to celebrate. “Unbelievable,” he said of his experience in helping craft the seven-point victory. And he couldn’t have been more right, because “unbelievable” was exactly how he played.

Indeed, Harden’s performance throughout the Nets’ victory over the Magic yesterday contrasted with his listless showing in his last two weeks with the Rockets. He displayed a high level of engagement even when he was understandably deferential early on. And once he became more comfortable with his situation, he channeled his energy towards proving why he’s worth acquiring in exchange for two rotation regulars, four draft picks, and four asset swaps. He filled the stat sheet with significant two-way work, and proved especially effective in keeping the competition at bay in the last three minutes of the set-to.

Clearly, Harden was motivated to do his best from opening top to final buzzer. He also made sure to underscore it in his post-game presser. “I hope that you can tell by my smile and my play,” he told the assembled media. “Just excited, excited for the opportunity.” And just so everybody was clear on what he meant, he added: “This is an unbelievable organization from top to bottom. For me, all I have to do is go out there and be the best James Harden I can be and good things will happen.” No doubt, the Rockets can’t help but wonder why he couldn’t have been at least as professional in his last days with them.

The good news is that the Nets figure to get even better as Harden settles in and fellow All-Star Kyrie Irving returns from quarantine. They certainly need to do so if they truly want to contend. Yesterday, the undermanned and talent-challenged Magic gave them all they could handle, never mind his exertions and all-world Kevin Durant’s ultra-efficient 42 markers. The bad news is that nothing less than a championship makes his arrival a success. As good as he feels, he knows his reputation is on the line unless and until he helps bridge the gap, and fast.


Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.