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Focusing on positives from James Harden’s uneven return

Harden’s return to action after a month-long absence didn’t go quite as scripted, but he certainly brought things to the table the Sixers sorely missed.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers’ 132-123 double-overtime loss to the Houston Rockets Monday night was the game that would not end. It just went on and on, my friends. Surely, this was not ideal for the Sixers welcoming back James Harden after a month-long absence. Doc Rivers claimed before the game that Harden was on an undisclosed minutes limit, and the Beard then went on to play 38 minutes. As Cady Heron foretold, the limit did not exist.

Heavier than expected workload aside, it was an uneven return for Harden. He shot 4-of-19 from the field and turned the ball over seven times. James also made some extremely poor decisions down the stretch of the game. But he also recorded seven assists, went 9-of-10 from the free throw line, and was one of two Sixers with a positive plus-minus for the game (Joel Embiid being the other).

One could hope that many of the negatives from James’ outing could be due to not being up to full game conditioning following the layoff; he had five assists against only one turnover at halftime, after all. While no one wants to make excuses for a poor performance by the team in a loss to a rebuilding Rockets club, you could understand why tired legs for Harden might have contributed to unsuccessful drives to the hoop and errant passes as the game progressed. In that spirit, let’s steer away from our natural inclination as Philadelphians and focus on the positive aspect of Harden’s game the Sixers especially missed during his absence: the Beard’s dynamic passing.

It’s well-known how often Harden has found the ball in his hands when on the court this season. His usage rate is at 27.2%, second on the team to Embiid among regulars, and his 9.7 assists per game would rank second in the NBA behind Tyrese Haliburton if James currently qualified. More than volume, though, is the types of passes Harden brings to the table that others on the team don’t even attempt. His gravity as a passer and the angles he creates help his teammates find looks that simply aren’t there when he is sidelined.

I surely missed Harden’s ability to find teammates with pinpoint accuracy on crosscourt passes. Here, James floats one to perfectly lead De’Anthony Melton in semi-transition for a triple:

Nobody on the roster can find rollers in the lane at anywhere near the degree of difficulty that James attempts. The combination of skill and swag on this pass to a cutting Shake Milton is unmatched:

We also saw some of the two-man pick-and-roll game between Harden and Embiid which many hope will be the bread and butter of the team’s offense:

Of course, while Harden is dangerous in the half court, he is arguably even more lethal as a passer in fast break opportunities. What a gorgeous little behind-the-back flip to Embiid we saw here:

Harden easily could have recorded double-digit assists in his return. Teammates missed some open shots off his feeds and a couple excellent looks to a rolling Paul Reed led to trips to the free throw line. Defense was the culprit for Philadelphia’s loss Monday, and while Harden certainly wasn’t great in that regard, it was very much a team-wide (lack of) effort on that end of the court. More importantly, we saw how the offense hums more effectively when the Beard is out there slinging passes. It was certainly an ugly game to watch, and Harden has some rust to knock off as well, but we at least saw some encouraging building blocks moving forward in his return.

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