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James Harden feels — and reciprocates — the love

It might still be the honeymoon stage, but James Harden and Philly are madly in love.

New York Knicks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

When James Harden was introduced as a Sixer back on Feb. 15, he revealed something that caught many off guard.

He wanted to be a Sixer from the beginning.

“Originally, when I was going through everything I was going through in Houston, Philly was my first choice,” Harden said that day. “It just didn’t happen. ... I just knew for a very long time this was a perfect fit.”

There was a former MVP, saying on the record, that playing in the city of Philadelphia was his first choice. It’s what Sam Hinkie prophesied. Daryl Morey made it come for fruition.

And as the 20,000-plus in attendance at the Wells Fargo Center showed, the feeling was mutual.

“Just excited, man,” Harden said postgame. “The love, the fans. It felt like home, you know what I mean? Just the love and support, man. You look around and, ‘We love you, James.’ That right there makes me go out there and play harder, and I just wanted to do whatever it takes to get the win.”

Sure, it’s the honeymoon phase, but James Harden and the city of Philadelphia have fallen madly in love already.

It started from pregame warmups (although one could make the argument it actually started with the pregame fit). The Beard was greeted by a rousing ovation as he began his routine. It’s striking to watch Harden warm up — the fluidity in movement, the replication of his form on every shot, the frustration he shows after every miss. If you didn’t know Harden was one of the top 75 players of all time, his pregame regimen would give you an indication that this guy is pretty damn good and takes his craft seriously.

And when legendary PA announcer Matt Cord introduced Harden, it felt like a playoff atmosphere.

“It was great, man,” Harden said. “Just the excitement from the beginning of the game. I felt the energy, I felt the love. So I just wanted to come out there and show my love back.”

The Beard reciprocated that love by dazzling those on hand with deft creation abilities and a silky smooth jumper. After a slow start, the Sixers’ offense got rolling on an impressive sequence that was quintessential Harden.

His first basket as a Sixer at the Wells Fargo Center was him turning the corner on a pick-and-roll, drawing contact from a helpless big and finishing through it for an and-one.

The next possession, Harden hit his patented step-back three, which sent the crowd into a frenzy.

After a bit of an offensive slog in the first half, Harden got things rolling in the second half with a pair of nice assists to Joel Embiid. The veteran guard continues to make life so much easier for the entire offense, but especially this season’s MVP front-runner.

“I continue to tell Jo, he’s so used to dribbling it up and having to go one-on-one, which he’s great at,” Harden said. “But I try to make the game easier for him in the sense of, ‘All right, you give me the ball whenever the game slows down or whatnot, and I can get you some easy ones so you don’t have to go against the defender every single time. You can get your shot — your little 15, 18-footer — or you’re able to just get a layup.’

“The more we can figure that out and get that more times than not, I think it’s going to be difficult, because then we create so much indecision. Now our shooters are getting shots and now everybody’s eating. It’s a process, man, but we’re in a good space right now.”

While Tyrese Maxey’s outburst — which Harden helped inspire — was crucial in the second half, it was really Harden that took the game over by manipulating the Knicks’ defense and making the right decisions consistently throughout the night.

The warmest feelings from fans for Harden might’ve been felt as the game was winding down.

Thanks to a 38-19 third quarter, the Sixers’ lead expanded to as much as 16. With 4:14 left, New York had gotten it down to 10 after having it to within eight a minute prior.

Then, Harden checked back in.

For so long, the Sixers have been maddening in closeout situations. We all know about the disastrous finish to Game 5 against the Hawks last season, but it was one game that was emblematic of a persistent issue with this team for years.

With Harden, the Sixers now have an elite playmaker and floor general that will make sure the team produces good offensive possessions in the guts of the game. And he did just that Wednesday, capping off the night with a brilliant look-ahead pass to Matisse Thybulle.

Ballgame.

Harden just missed his second straight triple-double with 26 points, nine assists and nine rebounds. Through three games, Harden is averaging 27.3 points, 12.3 assists and nine rebounds. His shooting splits are ridiculous (59/50/89.7) as is his true shooting percentage (79.2).

Those numbers are impossibly good and can’t be maintained. Harden will have a tough game or two. The Sixers will (eventually) lose with him in the lineup. There will be moments that cause people to evoke Harden’s playoff struggles as a reason to cast doubt on this team’s title chances.

But right now, the love is fervent — and it’s mutual.