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Is This James Harden’s New Reality?

Aside from one big game, the oft-traded superstar’s struggles have carried on into the playoffs. Is this just who the former MVP is now? And if so, what does that mean for the Sixers’ future?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On one of the most triumphant nights of his career, James Harden told a damning truth. Philadelphia’s lightning-rod lead guard came up with almost every critical shot down the stretch of Sunday’s Game 4, evening up the Sixers’ second-round series against the Heat with an impressive array of drives and stepbacks—the exact menu that made Harden an All-NBA fixture and an MVP. It was a tour de force. A signature performance. Amid public debate over Harden’s substandard production in these playoffs and what that might mean for the state of his game, he responded with the exact kind of inarguable, unstoppable scoring the Sixers needed.

It was the first time Harden scored over 30 points in a postseason game since the first round of the 2021 playoffs. Yet when asked about his standout showing, the only real difference Harden saw was in the result.

“Nothing really changed, man,” he said. “I just made some shots.”

The problem is that he’s right. The only thing separating the Harden who dragged the Sixers over the finish line in Game 4 and the Harden who has otherwise averaged 16.8 points on 38.4 percent shooting in the other games of this series was the cooperation of his most difficult attempts. If Harden’s stepback 3 is falling, he can still find lanes to attack. If the floor is spaced perfectly, he can turn those lanes into some kind of offense. If Joel Embiid is on the floor with him, he can bring all the elements together to break a game open.

If. That’s not a word that’s often used to characterize the play of Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Steph Curry. It’s not one that shadowed Harden, either, until somewhat recently—until his first step couldn’t launch him past defenders with the same force it used to, and his toughest jumpers stopped falling with the same back-breaking regularity. Harden was once the most self-sustaining scorer of his generation, an offense unto himself. Now he needs more. The right defender, the right alignment, the right lineup. He’s become a conditional superstar.

Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat - Game Five Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There are times when Harden still looks every bit the player who snapped entire defensive schemes—but only times. For the most part, he spends his possessions running the show for the Sixers, mortgaging the audacity of his game for the sake of making the right play.

“I’ll take what the game gives me,” Harden said after Game 3, when he attempted just 11 shots from the field in a Sixers win. For better or for worse, Harden used to take what he wanted. It made sense, once—by the system and by the numbers—for Harden to dominate in extremes, inventing new ways to create more space and more shots. Now he draws two to the ball and swings to the open man, good intentions born from the fact that playing to his previous volume isn’t really an option. Zoom in on any one play and it’s hard to find too much fault in Harden’s process. He’s still as brilliant a passer as ever, and as versed as anyone in all the ways a defense can crowd or rush a player with the ball.

“It’s not like we’re surprising him on anything,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “Come on. I don’t even know how many playoff games he’s had and playoff series. He’s literally seen every single coverage.”

Harden sees Miami’s help defenders sliding in from the perimeter. He sees the second man who would be in his path, or the third. “They’re corralling me,” he said. And, increasingly, Harden is playing in a way that suggests he knows he can’t weave through that layered pressure to finish at the rim or draw fouls the way he used to. He’s meeting his new reality. Harden has been one of the most dedicated and wildly effective isolation scorers the league has ever seen, but his one-on-one scoring efficiency has been gradually slipping since his MVP season in 2018—when then-Rockets general manager (and current Sixers president) Daryl Morey called him “the greatest isolation player in NBA history.” At that point, Harden was scoring 1.22 points per isolation possession, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ play-tracking data. As Harden changed teams and dealt with a hamstring injury this season, his output slipped to 1.06 points per possession. In the playoffs so far, he’s down to a lowly 0.87 points per possession.

P.J. Tucker might have something to do with that last figure. “You can’t ask for a better player to guard him, in my opinion,” said Bam Adebayo. Tucker knows Harden’s game from the inside out, having seen him smoke every style of defense during the three and a half years they played together in Houston. Tucker knows that the best way to wear Harden down is slowly and over time, by challenging every step, so he picks Harden up in the backcourt whenever possible, forcing him to plot his way through what should be the most routine phase of the offense. “I’m just trying to make it tough,” Tucker said. “Just knowing tendencies, what he wants, how he gets fouled, how he scores, just everything.” Tucker is familiar enough with Harden’s game to know when he needs to stand his ground to absorb contact and when he needs to pull his hands back to avoid a foul. He understands how far he can slink away from Harden after he gives up the ball, knowing full well that his former teammate—after years of working off the bounce—isn’t one to catch and shoot quickly.

He also knows, better than just about anyone, that two years ago the Rockets completely bailed on the very idea of playing a traditional center alongside Harden because it allowed opponents to trap him—and gum up the works of the offense—too easily. It bogged down his game even then. When the Heat haven’t double-teamed Harden outright in this series, they’ve functionally achieved the same effect by having an extra defender or two lurk in his driving lanes. “They’re doing a good job of putting two on the ball, and trying to deny me, basically, the entire court,” Harden said.

Philadelphia has tried running more double screens for Harden to get some of Miami’s lesser defenders in the mix, less out of preference than necessity. In years past, a defender like Tyler Herro was prey for Harden—an easy mark he could work over in iso until the defense reached a breaking point. In this series, Herro and Max Strus sometimes seem like Harden’s only way out. The Sixers have chased those mismatches so aggressively in some games of this series that they’ve thrown themselves off-balance in the process. It’s a sobering reality for a star who used to be able to break down even the junkiest defenses all on his own.

The biggest adjustment Miami made in Game 5—a blowout win that swung the series back in its favor—was to fight through screens and switch less. To keep Tucker on Harden and Adebayo on Embiid as much as possible, leaving them with no mismatches to attack and no self-evident offense. “If we can keep our matchups and be able to stay home, rather than switch and have to help and rotate—that’s a little bit tougher,” Tucker said after the Heat held Harden to 14 points and the Sixers to a scant 85 in Game 5. “So I always try to stay on him as much as I can, and hold that burden.” In theory, Harden should be able to turn the corner in any pick-and-roll to punish that kind of coverage, or occupy an extra defender until the Heat leave some other Sixer wide open in rotation. It didn’t work out that way. The more Harden tried to force the issue, the more ragged Philadelphia’s offense became. One of the league’s most proven creators has bumped up against an unfamiliar limit.

After the game, Sixers coach Doc Rivers diagnosed the problems with the offense as a matter of priorities. “We’ve gotta establish Joel at the beginning of the game,” Rivers said. “I thought we went away from that. That’s who we have to establish every night, and then play from that.” This is Philadelphia’s nonnegotiable order of operations, even with Embiid in a diminished state due to overlapping injuries. On the plays when Harden looks his most explosive, Embiid is often nearby, forcing defenders to reconsider their priorities. A pick-and-roll between the two puts a defense at odds with itself. Aren’t they supposed to crowd Harden? But where does that leave the MVP-level center as he tromps toward the basket?

“When Joel rolls, even if he doesn’t get the ball, he takes the entire team with him,” Rivers said.

In Game 5, Rivers actually tweaked his rotation to stagger Harden and Embiid less—to align his stars’ minutes so they would spend more of their time on the floor together. Philadelphia is losing its minutes in these playoffs overall when either Harden or Embiid is on the floor without the other, though the course of this series—in which Embiid missed the first two games with concussion symptoms and a fracture in his orbital bone—has highlighted Harden’s limitations through his contrasting circumstances.

“I think in games 1 and 2, we were able to focus on him and get our schemes down,” Herro said. “We spent a lot of time on it. Then with Embiid getting back, the focus kind of shifted to Embiid.” Harden took full advantage with an incredible Game 4. “But now,” Herro said, “we’re kind of back on to take care of both of them at once—or managing both.”

Neither Harden nor Embiid has been all that successful in this postseason without the other, but Harden, in particular, is elevated by the fact that playing with Embiid helps him to get downhill—to, effectively, turn back the clock. Harden, in turn, helps get Embiid into his preferred spots on the floor and gets everyone else out of his damn way. Post play has a great deal of logistical overhead; cuts need to be made and spots found before the action can even really begin. Harden makes that kind of organization look easy, something that couldn’t be said for any other guard Embiid has played with in Philadelphia thus far.

“That’s the reason why he’s here,” Embiid said of Harden’s ability to settle the Sixers into their offense. “That’s the reason why we brought him.”

Harden might be overqualified to direct traffic, but at this point it’s a core part of his value—and the conversation surrounding his future with the team. Harden could be an unrestricted free agent this summer if he’d like to be, and the fact that he conveniently missed the deadline to opt into his contract for next season suggests he might. Philadelphia might not be in a position where it can really afford to let him walk. Harden hasn’t produced like a max player since he joined the Sixers, but he gives them so much of what they need and he makes Embiid better in the process. That could be the key to a title in and of itself. Philly feels close—missing a more consistent wing shooter here, a proper backup center there. The story of the Sixers, on repeat. Yet what they’re missing most of all right now is a healthy Embiid in full effect, with two working hands and his skull intact. Even with this version of Harden—bolstered by the increasingly steady Tobias Harris, and Tyrese Maxey in overdrive—that could be enough.

The future of this partnership, however, depends on expectations—and we can see them forming in real time. It’s in how Rivers goes out of his way to note that Harden’s point totals don’t matter so much as the points he helps the offense create. It’s in the way his teammates have framed his role and impact on the floor.

“What we really need him to do on a nightly basis is what he does,” Harris said after Game 4. “It’s [to] be solid for us, and be able to really pick apart the defense—of how they’re playing him.”

A member of the Heat could characterize Gabe Vincent, the undrafted guard spot-starting for an injured Kyle Lowry, in the exact same way. Harden, to be clear, does so much more on the floor than any role player; the reason he has the ball in his hands, even when he isn’t scoring 36 a game, is because of the attention he commands and the sophisticated way he manipulates it. There is definite truth to the idea that his value isn’t solely expressed through his individual scoring. So long as Harden helps run a potent and flexible offense, he’ll be vital to the Sixers. He just isn’t the player who made the All-NBA first team six times in seven years, dominating in a style virtually no one else could. This Harden is different. More dependent. He takes what the game gives him.

There was an opportunity for Harden to seize the moment in Game 5 just as he had in Game 4—to give the Sixers a chance to compete, at least, in the space before the Heat built their runaway lead. Embiid was in pain. He had taken another direct shot to his already fractured face during the second quarter, and although he stayed on the floor, Embiid was completely out of sorts. The dominant big man parked himself in the corner on some possessions, out of the way. “Sometimes your body—and whatever that’s going on—just won’t allow you to be yourself,” Embiid said after. The offense stalled out. Miami’s lead ballooned. Harden, the Sixers’ best and only hope, couldn’t be himself, either.