For Rockets fans, the wounds were still pretty raw. James Harden’s departure — check that, his forced exit — was still fresh.
James Harden said he hoped he would be received with warmth in his return to Houston, and Rockets coach Stephen Silas expected cheers. Both Nets coach Steve Nash and Harden’s teammate, DeAndre Jordan, expected more negativity. It turns out they were all right.
There was a mixed reaction when Harden’s name was announced at the Toyota Center. There were more boos than cheers from the estimated crowd of over 3,000, and the jeers continued through the early stages every time Harden touched the ball.
“I hope I’m received with love,” Harden said beforehand. And that sentiment had been echoed by Silas, whose job as a first-year coach was made a whole lot tougher by Harden demanding a trade.
“I’d hope that it’d be positive for him. He did a lot for this organization. So we’ll see, obviously, but I would assume it’d be positive,” Silas said. “He’s done a whole lot, scored a lot of points, carried this team to the playoffs.”
“And he was here for a long time and they were much more good moments with James Harden for the Rockets than bad, so he should be recognized for that.”
The messy divorce left Silas with a rebuilding team that entered Wednesday having dropped 12 straight — and hoping a crowd fired-up for Harden’s return could give them some extra juice.
“The fact that it’s a national televised game, the fact that the crowd I’m sure will be into it, the fact that James is back, and all of those things makes it for a environment that you can grasp onto obviously,” Silas said. “The opponent is very tough, so that part isn’t great. But yeah, we’re needing some fire, and I assume [the] atmosphere will give it to us.”
Harden won the 2018 MVP for Houston, led the Rockets to a pair of Western Conference finals and claimed the past three scoring crowns. His contributions on the court may have been surpassed by those he made in the community.
In 2017, Harden gave $1 million to the city of Houston for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. And with the Houston dealing with power outages and food shortages after last month’s winter freeze, his restaurant Thirteen by James Harden donated 3,000 meals for needy residents. A week later, the restaurant donated 100 meals a day to five different schools, and another 150 to a low-income senior center.
Still, the fans were mostly salty, as expected.
“Fans can be emotional, and rightfully so,” Nash said. “They might be upset for the night. But whether it’s [now] or some point in the future, they’re going to remember fondly all the amazing things that James did here and Mike [D’Antoni] did here. Sometimes it’s a little too soon, a little too hot. So we’ll see how it is.
“Them getting close to the Warriors twice at a time when that was really a chase … the Rockets were the team that gave them the hardest time consistently. And that’s not just all the regular-season wins and James’ individual production. So I think the community here will really respect and remember them fondly, but it’s too soon.”
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta told the Houston Chronicle that he plans to retire Harden’s No. 13. And the team honored him with a tribute video with 5:23 left in the first quarter that drew legitimate cheers; he responded by raising his hands and touching them to his heart.
“James had an MVP season here — arguably a couple MVP seasons here — so I think that he did an amazing job being a basketball player and a humanitarian in the city,” Jordan said. “We know that the fans don’t really care too much about players personal wants. They’re really caring about one organization, which is understandable.
“But he wanted to change something in his career. And that’s fine: Organizations do it all the time. But I’m sure that there’ll be some heckling, and that’s fine.”We’re going to come out there and play basketball and have James’ back 150 percent.”