If players, coaches, executives and fans wondered what Kyrie Irving really felt when Brooklyn dealt for James Harden, it is doubtful much thought was given to Joe Harris, and how the trade might impact his place in the NBA universe.
Harris had already signed for four years and $75 million, so nobody was starting a GoFundMe campaign on his behalf. But with Irving, Harden, and Kevin Durant standing among the world’s most ball-dominant stars, and among the NBA’s top 15 all-time in usage rate, Harris had to wonder how, exactly, he was going to get his touches.
Or, better yet, if he was going to get his touches.
As it turned out, entering Game 3 against Milwaukee on Thursday night, the Big 3 had made Harris the luckiest man in the postseason tournament. Defenders preoccupied with containing one of the most dynamic offenses in league history had more or less given Harris his personal space on the floor. As the 29-year-old wing has proved, he needs only a small space to leave a big imprint on a game and a series.
In the first round, after scoring 22 of his 25 points against Boston in the first half of Game 2, Harris summarized the truth of playing with three future Hall of Famers this way: “That’s a shooter’s dream right there.” But the benefits go beyond the open looks Harris gets because opponents have to scramble to help on the juggernauts. The Nets have a lot of eyeballs on them nationally, even globally, on account of the star power they have assembled. Naturally, when people start to follow a superteam, they will also notice the not-so-super players who make a significant number of winning plays. Those who want to watch Durant, Irving and, when healthy, Harden will see there’s plenty more to Harris’ game than the ol’ corner catch-and-shoot.
He has learned how to put the ball on the floor, and take it to the goal. At a solid 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, he has learned to play defense with some physicality, too. All in all, when fans watch the Nets, they instantly realize that Joe Harris has come a long way from the Canton Charge of the G-League. In 2015, according to basketball-reference.com, the Cavaliers either sent Harris to Canton, or called him back from Canton, 32 times before giving up and trading him to the Magic, who immediately waived him.
The Nets picked him up in the summer of 2016. Their new coach, Kenny Atkinson, who had Kyle Korver in Atlanta as an assistant, told Harris he could be Brooklyn’s Korver. The former second-round pick from Virginia had trouble believing him. In his first Nets season, Harris was the seventh-leading scorer on a 20-62 team. Atkinson developed him into the kind of player who could command $75 million before Steve Nash secured his place as a critical supplemental piece who inspired Durant to call him one of the best shooters he’s played with.
Durant played with a couple of guys named Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, you might recall.
When Harris his hot, Durant has said, “that unlocks our whole team.” Blake Griffin believes Harris elevates the Big 3 to a Big 4 because, he said, “It seems like every shot he shoots is going in.”
The Nets’ stars are clearly willing to feed Harris, who told GQ that he was at first surprised by Harden’s passing ability. With or without Harden, who missed Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference semis, Brooklyn moves the ball across the board, allowing Harris to spend his time and energy, in his words, “just trying to find windows.” He finished the regular season with a career-best 50.5 shooting percentage, and with a league-best 47.5 shooting percentage from 3-point range. In the Nets’ first seven playoff games, Harris made an absurd 51 percent of his 3s.
Longtime NBA observers can see where this might be heading. The Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls needed huge Finals shots from the John Paxsons and Steve Kerrs as they piled up the trophies for their legacies. LeBron James asked Korver to make a big shot for him in the 2017 Finals, and that Game 3 miss from the short corner helped the Cavaliers lose to Golden State in five.
At some point over the balance of Brooklyn’s postseason run, perhaps in the Finals, Harris will likely get the ball, and a clear look, in a moment-of-truth situation. If the ultimate story of this year’s Big 3 experiment ends up resting in his hands, well, Harris doesn’t come across as a man who fears the consequences of failing.
“If I have space,” he has said, “I’m going to shoot it.”
And if that crucial shot happens to go in, Joe Harris will be even luckier than he is today.
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