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James Harden is transforming his game to make the Sixers better

James Harden has run the Sixers’ offense to near perfection during the team’s seven-game win streak.

LA Clippers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

James Harden was disappointed to find out he’d tied the Sixers’ single-game assist record.

Had he known he had 21 — tied with Maurice Cheeks, one of his former coaches with the Thunder, and Wilt Chamberlain, who he’s crossed paths with in the record books a few times — he would’ve gone for one more.

“I wish somebody would’ve told me. I would’ve tried to get 22 or I would’ve got pissed at one of my teammates for missing a layup or easy shot,” Harden joked.

The Beard dazzled on Friday night, shattering his previous career high of 17 assists and posting a triple-double while helping lead the Sixers to perhaps their best win of the season over the Clippers. His elite ability as a playmaker has helped get the most out of Joel Embiid and the Sixers’ entire offense.

Harden’s play might be the most encouraging thing to come out of the team’s spotless 7-0 homestand. After missing 14 games with a foot tendon strain and having a forgettable return in Houston, Harden averaged 20.6 points and 12.7 assists while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three on an unsurprisingly healthy volume (7.1 attempts a game).

Harden might not be the same guy that could drop 50 (or 60) on a given night, but he’s still impacting the game at a high level.

“This is a generational scorer that has taken [to] and decided to be a point guard,” Doc Rivers said postgame. “And that’s hard to do. ... Most people can’t do that — or will not do it is a better way of saying it. And the fact that he is willingly doing it, running the team, organizing us, it’s huge for us.”

Simply having organized half-court possessions is not something the Sixers have been adept at during the Joel Embiid era. Ben Simmons does many things well on a basketball court, but actually running the offense and being a “floor general” was not a strong suit during his tenure in Philadelphia.

When told about Rivers’ comments Harden gave a similar look to the one that matches his now-famous GIF. It’s not that he didn’t appreciate his coach’s praise, it’s that Harden doesn’t really see this as anything transformative.

He’s taking what the defense is giving him and making his teammates better.

“A lot of people can’t transform their game, if that’s what you want to call it,” Harden said. “There’s only a handful of guys that be a really good scorer but still be a facilitator. It’s a credit to the work I’ve put in, my IQ and just going out there and being the playmaker that I am. I’ve always been a playmaker but in other scenarios I had to score a lot more. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here and it’s working well.”

If Harden hadn’t missed so much time he’d actually be leading the NBA in assists with nearly 11 per game. Of course if Harden winds up with the highest mark in the league by the end of the season it won’t be the first time. He took home the assist title in 2017-18.

That was the year before Harden’s MVP season and at the peak of his powers. He averaged just a tick under 30 points a game during his time with the Rockets, capturing three straight scoring titles. It’s not to say Harden can’t score now, but his role and game have changed. It appears you can pencil him in for roughly 20 a night — and really, that’s OK.

The Sixers feature a player that led the league in scoring last season and that’s doing so again in 2022-23 in Embiid. They have a player that looks like a rising star in Tyrese Maxey, a strong complementary scorer in Tobias Harris and a supporting cast full of willing and capable shooters.

While Harden is making sure everybody eats, feeding Embiid is a top priority. The perennial MVP was brilliant again Friday, pouring in 44 points ... almost quietly.

The pair are likely playing their best basketball together since Harden was acquired last season. The duo hasn’t even played 40 games together yet — and the time they’ve spent together has been mostly excellent.

“We just did what we’re supposed to do every single night, playing off each other,” Embiid said. “He makes my life easier and I sure hope I do the same for him. ... Every single day I just think we’re getting better.”

Harden has had his fair share of star teammates but none quite like Embiid. Despite getting off to a fast start and showing flashes of brilliance, there were moments when the connection was just a bit off.

The word that seems to come up during every Harden availability lately is “comfortable” — whether a reporter asks him about his comfortability or he brings it up himself. The Harden-Embiid pairing had a rollercoaster feel to end last season. It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say this seven-game run has been the most comfortable Harden has looked as a Sixer and the best prolonged stretch he’s played with Embiid.

“Constant work, talk about it, communication, going out there and do it,” Harden said. “And then obviously, we want to see each other succeed. So I ask him something or tell him something and vice versa, we do it. And we know that’s better for our team — him rolling or him in that pocket, us getting shots now and open up the game for our shooters. So, it’s working really good and honestly we can get better at it.”

The prior three-game road trip left a lot of Sixers fans with a bitter taste in their mouth — and for good reason. The Sixers looked lifeless and had familiar issues plague them during three straight losses.

This homestand did feel different. Sure, they didn’t exactly face a gauntlet, but that’s kind of the point. Historically, the Sixers have seemingly always had a game or two where focus or energy was lacking and they’d lose to an inferior opponent. That didn’t happen over the course of seven games.

As the Sixers creep up the standings, now sitting just two games behind Boston and Milwaukee in the loss column, perhaps this is the start of something bigger.

“We did a really good job, man,” Harden said. “Like it didn’t matter who we played against. We took every opponent serious and we focused on ourselves.”

Harden’s focus on playmaking has him making different kinds of history and the Sixers’ offense rolling.

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