NEW YORK – Forget being a reserve. James Harden was sidelined so long he couldn't remember what it was like even to be a starter.
It all came back quickly, just as he expected.
“Not to like brag or anything, but I’m like really, really good at this game,” Harden said.
Harden had 18 points and 11 assists in his return from an 18-game absence to help the Brooklyn Nets beat the San Antonio Spurs 128-116 on Wednesday night.
Coming off the bench in an NBA game for the first time since he won the league's Sixth Man award for Oklahoma City in 2011-12, Harden also had seven rebounds after the longest layoff of his career. He hadn't played since April 5 because of a strained right hamstring.
He said he had forgotten his routines from his days as a sub.
“But that sixth-man role, I mastered that as well,” Harden said. “I got an award for that role. That role is easy. Come in and impact the game. Do whatever it takes to win, whether it's defensively or offensively. But that’s my role no matter what, especially on this team.”
Landry Shamet scored 21 points and Nicolas Claxton had a career-high 18 for the Nets. They won their third straight and pulled within 1 1/2 games of Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference lead.
Kevin Durant had 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. The Nets played without Kyrie Irving after he left their victory in Chicago on Tuesday with a facial contusion. They still have had their three superstars play together just seven times.
But they put eight players in double figures and shot 60.8% to wrap up a league-best 22-8 record against Western Conference teams.
DeMar DeRozan scored 21 points for the Spurs, who missed a chance to secure a spot in the play-in tournament. Dejounte Murray had 15 points and 11 rebounds.
“I just want to win and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Murray said. “But at the end of the day, the situation we’re in, the last option is getting that play-in berth and going to see what we can do to try to get in the playoffs.”
Brooklyn improved to 28-7 when Harden plays. He had missed 20 of the last 21 games and the Nets were only 12-9 in that span.
“So it was a welcome sight for sure. Happy to have him back,” Shamet said.
Harden had only two baskets through three quarters and did a little dance after the second, when he was fouled while making a 3-pointer for a 95-78 lead with 2:33 left in the third.
The Spurs were coming off a 146-125 victory over Milwaukee, scoring a franchise-record 87 points in the first half. They didn't hit that total until the final period Wednesday.
The Nets jumped to a 35-20 lead after the first quarter. The Spurs had trimmed it to six by the time Harden checked in with 8:06 left in the second and that's where it was at halftime, after Harden's miss in the lane at the buzzer left Brooklyn leading 57-51.
The Nets pulled away in the third, with Harden's first basket, a 3-pointer, starting a 7-0 spurt that extended a nine-point lead to 80-64 midway through the period.
Spurs: The Spurs opened a two-game stay in New York. Their Feb. 20 game against the Knicks was postponed and rescheduled for Thursday. ... Patty Mills scored 15 points.
Nets: Joe Harris sat out with a sore left hip. He had been the only Net to appear in each of the first 69 games. ... With Mike James nearing the end of his second 10-day contract, coach Steve Nash said he couldn't reveal whether the team plans to sign him for the rest of the season, but said he imagined the guard would remain with the team.
LINE THEM UP
The Nets used their 36th different starting lineup of the season, extending the franchise record they set this season. James became the 19th Nets player to start a game, setting a franchise record.
Claxton's previous career high was also against the Spurs. He had 17 points in the Nets' victory in San Antonio on March 1.
Spurs: Visit the Knicks on Thursday.
Nets: Host Chicago on Saturday.