For whatever reason, James Harden couldn’t crack 30 points in the first nine games of the 2022 NBA Playoffs.
His last 30-point playoff performance came nearly a year ago as a Brooklyn Net, when he had 34 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists in the closeout Game 5 against the Boston Celtics in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. From there, a right hamstring injury forced him to miss a significant portion of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks and things weren’t the same even for a portion of the 2021-2022 regular season.
A change of scenery seemed to brighten things up, as Harden posted a triple-double and nearly had three more in his first five games as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. With the 10-time All-Star on board, the Sixers were 15-8 when he suited up and Joel Embiid seemed happy to have someone who could finally contribute on the court and somewhat ease the load off his shoulders as they prepared for a long playoff run.
However, the James Harden experience for Philadelphia in the 2022 NBA Playoffs has been a mixed bag.
More often than not Harden’s field goal percentage would hover in the high-30s and while his 9.0 assists per game are currently the best he’s averaged in a postseason, they’ve come at the price of 4.2 turnovers per game.
Of course, Harden had some solid games, just like his 22-point, 15-assist effort in eliminating the Toronto Raptors, but there have been games where the three-time NBA Scoring Champion has had atrocious shooting nights that have been glaring in losses.
Game 4 was a crucial one for the 76ers considering how it spelled the difference between a 3-1 hole and a 2-2 even series and for the first time in 341 days, it was great to see Harden finally score 30 points in a postseason game.
The tenth time was the charm as the 3-point shooting was back, with Harden making six of his 10 3-point attempts. When the Miami Heat threatened late in the game, Harden took it upon himself and scored 16 points in the final quarter. It didn’t matter if it was Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo guarding him; he was locked in offensively.
Beyond his team-high 31 points, the Heat defense was so focused on Harden that they would tend to leave gaps that the 2017-2018 NBA MVP easily exploited. With all that playmaking, five other Sixers scored in double-figures and the balanced effort helped tie the series and turn it into a virtual best-of-three series.
Embiid’s presence alone gives Harden a much different view of the court. Aside from having a reliable post threat to feed the ball to, the gravity the 2021-2022 NBA MVP Finalist draws on offense creates driving lanes and potential drop pass opportunities for cutters. With Harden’s passing, the dropoff between him and Ben Simmons is largely on the defensive end, but Philadelphia’s defensive schemes and personnel coupled with Harden’s shot-making ability should mask that.
The latter is quite crucial and Harden understands that. He simply can’t force things and with the teammates he has, the six-time All-NBA First Team selection knows he can pick his spots and maximize opportunities.
With how things went in Game 4, it’s all about exploiting weaknesses. Kyle Lowry re-injured his left hamstring in the game and his status for Game 5 remains up in the air. Miami’s rotations will certainly adjust but it’s up to him to exploit more athletic yet less experienced defenders when Butler or Adebayo are not defending him.
Which James Harden would the Philadelphia 76ers need to have success in these playoffs? Certainly not the one throwing up duds, but at this point, the Harden that carried his team all the way to the playoffs may be a tough ask. Nevertheless, when Harden does a little bit of everything, it can be contagious and when the rest of the Sixers follow his lead, good things will come their way.