The Brooklyn Nets won Game 1 of their second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, but they suffered a critical loss in that game’s opening moments when James Harden strained his hamstring.

This was an aggravation of an injury that forced him to miss 17 straight games in the regular season, and 19 games out of a 20-game stretch. It derailed a season in which he was mounting a legitimate MVP case and leading the Kevin Durant-less Nets to a stunning stretch of victories.

The Brooklyn Nets are shellshocked after two straight losses to the Milwaukee Bucks. Can James Harden’s return change the tide of this series?

The Nets went on to win Game 2 against the Bucks in blowout fashion, leading by as many as 49 points at one point, but the tide turned when the series shifted back to Milwaukee. The Bucks won the ugliest game of the playoffs in Game 3, and then disaster struck again for the Nets in Game 4 when Kyrie Irving sprained his ankle.

Forced to carry his squad, Kevin Durant put up a battle but couldn’t hold off the Bucks, who tied the series up in decisive fashion.

With a pivotal Game 5 looming and Irving out for at least the next game, Harden pushed hard to get back into the lineup. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, he participated in Tuesday’s shootaround and showed progress in his hamstring, prompting the Nets to upgrade his status from doubtful to questionable.

Considering this swift progression, it seems likely that unless there’s a setback before tip-off, Harden will at least appear in the game. How effective he’ll be is another question entirely. Not long ago, Anthony Davis tried to play for the Los Angeles Lakers through a groin strain in a decisive Game 6 against the Phoenix Suns but had to throw in the towel just six minutes in.

These are two different players, with two different injuries and histories of handling their injuries, but it’s a reminder of how challenging it can be to play through an injury that is far from healed. James Harden has been an iron man for the majority of his career, rarely missing more than a few games per season, and being good to go for 40-plus minutes every time he’s out there.

Even though this Bucks’ team seems to wilt when the lights are brightest and expectations are at their peak, the Nets will need everything Harden can give them in Game 5.

Fortunately, the Nets are pretty darn good when Harden and Durant play together, even without Irving. They have a +14.2 net rating without Irving in 232 possessions, and while that’s obviously a small sample, it’s also their best two-man combination in all the variations of this Big 3 and these numbers bear that out.

James Harden will turn 32 in August, and there’s no knowing how many more chances he’ll get at deep runs in the NBA playoffs. While in a perfect world, he’d be able to rest his injured hamstring and not have to play again until he’s 100 percent, it’s understandable that he wants to take matters into his own hands. With all due respect to Kevin Durant, the Brooklyn Nets aren’t getting past the Milwaukee Bucks and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo if Bruce Brown or Joe Harris are battling for the title of second-best player.

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