"James kind of yelled at me," Irving said. "It's not a negative yell, but he yelled at me, 'Kai, get the f'ing ball!' in the third quarter after he scored [12 points] in the quarter. I kind of took that personal. I just wanted to come out in the fourth quarter in an aggressive mindset and just play within the flow of the offense."
Irving, who was scoreless in the third quarter, responded to his co-star's challenge by scoring 15 of his 24 points in the fourth as the Nets cruised to a 117-102 win Friday night over the San Antonio Spurs. Harden had 11 points in the final quarter, as the Nets' superstar guards were only two points shy of matching the Spurs' scoring total in the frame.
It was only the fifth game that Harden and Irving have played together this season, as Irving, who is unvaccinated against COVID-19, has missed most of the season due to New York City ordinances and the Nets opting against using him on a part-time basis until recently. This performance, particularly in the fourth quarter, was their best as a duo so far this season.
"For sure, it was a breakthrough," said Harden, who finished with 37 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. "He's capable of doing that at any moment and any point in the game.
"That's one of the reasons why we need him every single game, because he's able to do that, especially with everything that's going on with our team. But he's able and more than capable of doing things like that whenever he wants. I think he just tries to get us involved a little bit more, but he's a special talent."
The Nets are now 18-4 over the past two seasons when Harden and Irving play without injured MVP candidate Kevin Durant, who is expected to miss at least a month with a sprained MCL in his left knee. This was the sixth time that Harden and Irving have combined to score at least 60 points when playing without Durant, but it was the first such occasion this season.
"We have a decent rhythm between one another of just getting out of each other's way but also demanding each other to play at that level," Irving said. "When it's us going together and us doing it as a tandem or a duo, it opens up the space for everyone. When we're playing with the unbelievable pace like we were in the fourth quarter, I don't see too many teams that can keep up with that."
The win bumped Brooklyn (29-16) back to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Harden offered proof that his early-season lack of explosiveness, which he attributed to having to spend the offseason rehabilitating from a serious hamstring strain, is no longer a concern with a highlight dunk in the third quarter. He drove down the lane, elevated and dunked over San Antonio center Jakob Poeltl, one of the NBA's best rim protectors, to the delight of Nets teammates who Harden joked didn't think he could dunk anymore.
"I'm definitely back," Harden said. "It's just throughout the course of the year, we've had so much going on [with] our team -- a lot of injuries and whatnot and obviously the situation with Kai.
"It's really difficult to get a rhythm like we all want to, but we've just got to continue to fight, continue to take one game at a time and push through. But eventually, this thing is going to come together where we're all together and we all make a really huge run at this thing."