Houston Rockets show they still have love for James Harden in his return
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
It's all about perspective.
And Rockets fans seemed to have a surprising amount of it Wednesday night, when James Harden played his first game in Houston since he transformed from the city's hero to its villain after forcing a trade to the Brooklyn Nets nearly two months ago.
When he was introduced in the starting lineup, Harden received a mixed reception from the crowd of 3,615 fans at Toyota Center. There were boos, but there were also cheers. Judging from the video, it was difficult to tell which were louder.
All things considered, Harden received a warmer-than-expected reception during the Nets' 132-114 win, especially considering the messy divorce that transpired just 50 days earlier.
After pouring his heart into the franchise for eight seasons, Harden's time with the team ended on a sour note, as he demanded a trade and then willed it into existence through a mixture of dogging it on the court and partying off it. The Rockets eventually conceded, dealing him to the Nets on Jan. 13.
Harden left Rockets fans feeling jilted and disrespected — and we've seen how that can play out.
When LeBron James returned to Cleveland in 2010 for the first time since leaving for Miami in free agency, the tension in the air was suffocating, the boos were deafening, and the signs around the arena were cutting. One called him a traitor. Another told him to beg for mercy.
Similarly, when Kevin Durant played in Oklahoma City for the first time after leaving for Golden State in free agency in 2016, his reception was frigid, and the fans’ anger was palpable, including chants of "cupcake" to mock him.
Harden, of course, was let off the hook a bit because he didn't have to play in front of nearly 20,000 fans. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the arena was at less than 25% capacity, reducing fans' impact from a roar to a rustle.
After the game, Harden said there were "a lot of mixed emotions" from the crowd, something James and Durant would've been lucky to experience.
The organization, however, made sure to make Harden feel welcome.
The team played a moving video tribute to him during a timeout in the first quarter, something the Cavaliers and Thunder opted not to do in James' and Durant's returns. The Nets players all watched it, and afterward, Harden held up both arms to thank the fans before bringing his hands together at his chest in a prayer position.
Harden then gave the city a reminder of what it lost.
He finished with 29 points on 10-for-15 shooting, plus 10 rebounds and 14 assists for the Nets, who are in second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 24-13. He had the highest plus-minus of anyone on the court (+17).
The only sign that he might've been a bit rattled was his eight turnovers. But his highlight reel of plays outweighed those errors.
There was the time he drove to the free-throw line, spun and made a shot from just inside the left block. Or the time he threw a lob from beyond the 3-point line to DeAndre Jordan, who made a two-handed jam. Or the time he attacked the lane and made a floater as nearly every Rockets player collapsed on him.
It makes sense that the city of Houston still has a lot of love for Harden. It's just surprising — and impressive — that the fans were able to show some of it so quickly.
Before Wednesday's game, Nets coach Steve Nash said Harden will obviously be remembered fondly, but added, "Sometimes it's a little too soon, a little too hot."
There's no question that the Rockets franchise has a lot to be grateful for. Harden led them to the playoffs in eight straight seasons, including Western Conference Finals appearances against the Warriors in 2015 and 2018.
During that time, Harden was a nine-time All-Star, a six-time first-team All-NBA player and the league MVP in 2018.
"He did a lot for this organization," Rockets coach Stephen Silas said before Wednesday's game. "He’s done a whole lot, scored a lot of points, carried this team to the playoffs, was here for a long time. There were much more good moments with James Harden for the Rockets than the end. He should be recognized for that."
Even after he left, Harden was there for the city. After millions of Texans lost power when record-low temperatures hit the state two weeks ago, Harden said he was on the phone trying to help. His Houston restaurant, Thirteen, handed out 3,000 meals to people in need.
The Rockets intend to retire Harden's No. 13, a fact he said he learned on the internet. He appreciates the gesture and hopes his impressive résumé overshadows his bitter departure.
"Hopefully I did something right," he said. "Obviously, I came up short of a championship, but the work on and off the court that I put in over the last eight years was elite. Obviously, that's the only thing that I didn't do or didn't accomplish is a championship, which is difficult to attain.
"But as far as bringing excitement to the city, taking care of fans on and off the court is something I try to contribute. So hopefully that outweighs that."
It appears that it has.
What transpired Jan. 12, following the Rockets' 117-100 loss to the Lakers, now seems like a distant memory. After that game, Harden told reporters that he didn't think the Rockets — who have dropped 13 straight games — were good enough and that he didn't think the situation could be fixed. His teammates felt disrespected.
The next day, Harden was gone. And everyone was left wondering if his reputation had been permanently marred.
Things seemed very ugly.
But as often happens with breakups, the beautiful moments outweighed the bitterness at the end.
That was never clearer than on Wednesday.
After the game, Harden hugged his former teammates and members of the Rockets' coaching and training staff. There was a show of mutual respect.
Harden is now in a new relationship that fits him much better. Of his new love, he said things couldn't be going better.
"Top to bottom, it has been great," he said.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA reporter for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.