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Monday, June 24, 2024

James Harden Rediscovers his Form, Propelling the Sixers to Success

A link to the gospel song “You Know My Name” by Tasha Cobbs Leonard was included in a text message sent to 76ers forward James Harden on his way to Wells Fargo Centre on a Sunday morning from Harden’s coach, Doc Rivers. Rivers has never before shared a song with Harden in this way. The idea intrigued him.

Of course, the message was not chosen at random. About 36 hours had passed since the basketball world began analysing Harden’s dismal performance in the 76ers’ Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Boston Celtics. Rivers said that he sent the music to Harden so that he would be reminded of who he is.

Sure enough, Harden hit a 3-pointer from the baseline with 19 seconds remaining in overtime on Sunday, giving the 76ers a 116-115 win and knotting the best-of-seven series at 2-2. With 42 points, 9 dimes, 8 boards, and 4 steals, Harden was outstanding in Game 4.

The 76ers have been a regular postseason team in the NBA for the last six years, with five trips to the conference finals. However, they have consistently been eliminated in those second-round series. In 2001, led by Allen Iverson, they defeated the Milwaukee Bucks and advanced to the NBA Finals, their last trip to the conference finals.It seems that Philadelphians’ collective patience is running out. When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver gave 76ers centre Joel Embiid his first Most Valuable Player Award prior to Game 3, it was the culmination of the franchise’s long-forgotten, team-building playbook known as the Process. Without going into too many of the nitty-gritty details, suffice it to say that the club played terrible basketball for many seasons in order to accumulate a number of high round selections, one of which was utilised to choose Embiid from Kansas.

The 76ers face a difficult situation since the Process was never intended to result in individual accolades, no matter how welcome they may be. Players like Embiid and Harden, as well as head coach Doc Rivers and general manager Daryl Morey, have been given the order to compete for a championship. At 29, Embiid is a veteran of the NBA. Last year, the 76ers acquired Harden in a trade. Rivers was questioned about the desperation of his team before Game 4.

This time, Harden didn’t let us down. He took out for the basket at the start of the first quarter and scored on a runner, bopping the ball off his head after it had gone through the hoop for fun. It foreshadowed the use of more fireworks later on.

That’s not to say any of it was simple. The 76ers blew a 16-point advantage in the third quarter. Embiid ended the game with 34 points and 13 rebounds despite shooting only 11 of 26 from the field. And Jayson Tatum almost led the Celtics to a devastating comeback win with 22 of his 24 points coming after halftime. Instead, Harden carried the 76ers on his back.

Harden was mostly a facilitator throughout the regular season, as seen by his 10.7 assist per game average, which led the NBA. No longer was he the scoring and 3-point shooting machine he once was for the Houston Rockets. Instead, he became a strong complement to Embiid, the team’s central attraction. Embiid was the centre of attention, and rightfully so; even Harden couldn’t steal the show.

The first game of the series between the 76ers and the Celtics was a strange and unexpected deviation from that equilibrium. Since Embiid was out after injuring his right knee late in the first round, Harden allegedly felt compelled to go in his time machine and revisit his gluttonous, ball-dominant days with the Rockets. He scored 45 points on 14-of-22 shooting from 3-point range to help the 76ers eke out a victory against the Celtics.

For Games 2 and 3, with Embiid back in the lineup, Harden seemed nearly overawed by his teammate’s presence, too meek and subservient. Jaylen Brown sticking with Harden for lengthy periods didn’t help. Harden was 5 for 28 from the field and 2 for 13 from deep in the two defeats. Friday’s Game 3 was the bloodiest of the series thus far. Harden often ignored easy baskets. Early in the final period, he attempted a 3-pointer but came up just short of the hoop. Many supporters voiced their disappointment.

The 76ers had a long film session in the gym on Saturday. Rivers pointed to specific moments from Game 3 where the 76ers needed to play faster, where they were outhustled by the Celtics for rebounds and loose balls, and where their body language let them down. The Celtics conducted themselves differently despite having similar championship goals after reaching the NBA finals last season.

The 76ers were rife with miscues on Sunday. In the last period, their offence just stopped working. They froze in place, settling for some gruelling photos. Harden, though, is no stranger to the postseason, and he has spoken of how the presence of John Hao, a student who survived the February massacre at Michigan State University, has served as a source of inspiration. The two of them FaceTimed one other and hit it off.

Harden’s runner over Al Horford of the Celtics in the final seconds of regular time knotted the score at 107. In addition, Harden made a crucial steal while guarding Marcus Smart in extra time. It seemed like his teammates relaxed around him.

Dan O'Brien
Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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