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James Harden looked a lot like James Harden

James Harden poured in 35 points against the Celtics, his highest total as a Sixer. What’s even more encouraging is how he did it.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s one game.

That’s what most Sixers fans will tell themselves after a rough opening night in Boston Tuesday.

And it’s very true. Joel Embiid struggled and will likely still need time to get into full game shape. There’s little doubt he will look more like his MVP-caliber self. With so many new pieces, the defense blew assignments and had miscommunications, while the offense was stagnant and plagued by turnovers. Given the NBA track record of the Sixers’ newcomers, it feels like those things will get better as well.

But you don’t have to look too far for the biggest positive of the evening: James Harden. With Embiid dealing with early foul trouble and double teams, it was Harden who kept the Sixers in the game. The contest was tied at 63 at halftime in large part thanks to Harden’s 22-point half.

“He had great rhythm,” Doc Rivers told reporters postgame in Boston (per Noah Levick of NBCSP). “He saved us. Joel picks up those two fouls and we had to take him out. Our (planned) rotation was taking James out first but again, you have these rotations set and then that happens. So we had to go away from that, keep James. … I was like, ’No, you have to stay on.’ And I thought that stretch saved the game. It kept us in the game. He got going, which is great for us. Really happy for him.”

The Beard was very good-to-brilliant. The numbers look mighty impressive — 35 points (his highest total as a Sixer), 9 of 14 (5 of 9 from three), eight rebounds and seven assists — but it was how Harden accumulated that stat line that is the most promising takeaway for the Sixers.

Harden looked like he had his legs under him for the first time since suffering a Grade 2 hamstring strain while still in Brooklyn. He appeared to have all the torque needed on his patented step-back three, drawing fouls on Al Horford and Grant Williams and victimizing both of them multiple times on switches. It was a welcomed sight after that shot seemed to fail him so often after he arrived in Philly.

But it was Harden’s overall shot profile that was arguably the most encouraging thing. In addition to the three-point and free throw barrage, Harden nailed a midrange pull-up, dusted off his trusty floater and had the necessary burst to get by defenders and explosiveness to finish at the rim.

In fact, you could argue he passed up a few opportunities in the paint that he might’ve been able to score on, perhaps being a bit too selfless.

“I feel pretty solid,” Harden told reporters. “We’ve got a long journey, long way to go, but it’s not about me individually. I know what I’m capable of. It’s about doing the right things to try to help this team win. For us, we feel like we had stretches where we were playing very, very well, and then times where we allowed them too many easy points. Especially on the road, it’s going to be difficult to recover. Learning lesson. Watch the film, get better, be ready to go Thursday.”

All this against the stingiest defense in the NBA last season and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Marcus Smart.

It doesn’t get any easier for Harden and the Sixers when they welcome the Milwaukee Bucks to town on Thursday night in their home opener. Harden will go from facing Smart and Boston’s tremendous help and off-ball defense to another one of the best perimeter defenders in the game in Jrue Holiday and arguably the best “free safety” in the NBA in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

With that said, Harden had his finest performance as a Sixer last season against Milwaukee. He posted 32 points and nine assists, combining with Embiid for a dominant offensive performance in late March. The Sixers were a disastrous Paul Millsap run (remember when that was a thing?) away from a big win over the Bucks.

Harden’s partnership with Embiid is still developing, but we saw glimpses of how lethal that duo can be in the pick-and-roll. In addition to the toughness and defense someone like P.J. Tucker is going to add, that familiarity with Harden is also quite useful. You see how their two-man game, with Tucker’s ability on the short roll, can open up the Sixers’ offense.

While these actions have looked nearly unstoppable at times, the Bucks will have answers on occasion. It’s important for Harden and Embiid — and really the offense as a whole — to have effective counters.

“We’ve just got to keep playing off of each other,” Embiid told reporters. “We’ve just got to have multiple actions. I thought at times they defended that pick-and-roll pretty well. But then again, what’s next? The ball can’t stick. In those situations, we’ve just got to keep moving the ball, going to the second action. It just doesn’t stop at the pick-and-roll. Even if they stop it, we have a second and third action, whether it’s playing with him and myself, changing sides and all that. There’s so much we can do out of that, but we just can’t let the ball stick.”

It’s just one game, but the Sixers have to feel damn good about the version of James Harden they saw. Did he look like “Houston Harden,” the guy that took home an MVP and had some of the most prolific offensive seasons in NBA history? Not quite, but the team doesn’t need him to be that.

We’ll see what he has in store for an encore Thursday — and if it can last the entire regular season and beyond.

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