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Does James Harden feel the pressure? ‘No ... I’m ready to hoop’

After a weird, injury-riddled calendar year, James Harden is ready for the postseason.

Indiana Pacers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

James Harden has been straightforward with the media since he arrived in Philadelphia.

Not short or curt, but you can certainly tell when he doesn’t have much to say on a particular topic.

A hot topic Thursday — and really almost every day since he was traded here — was the hamstring issue that has plagued him all season long. He entertained the first question when asked if he was having any issues with it.

“No, it’s good,” Harden said ahead of Saturday’s Game 1 matchup vs. the Toronto Raptors. “I’ve actually been doing some sprints and some hamstring work this week, so it’s been a really good week for me to be able to prepare myself for this first round.”

You’ll recall Harden didn’t play after his trade from the Nets to the Sixers was completed, opting to rest his hamstring through the All-Star break. The rest appeared to do him well as he got off to a sensational start with the Sixers.

When asked if this week had a similar feel to his early time with the Sixers, he was a little shorter, but answered.

“Similar. Lot of sprints, lot of weight room, lot of work, which is great. We need it.”

By the time the third question came around, asking if the injury was nagging him and possibly affecting his burst, Harden simply shook his head.

You can understand reporters asking questions about it. Harden’s health will be a huge factor in how this postseason plays out. His long-term health potentially becomes a $270-million question this offseason.

You can also understand why Harden is over talking about it — much like he’s over talking about his playoff struggles from years past.

And that’s also understandable. The Beard has been a league MVP, but he’s missing the piece of hardware every NBA player covets. If not for the Golden State Warriors run of dominance, perhaps he would already have it.

But maybe the strangest part of the “Small-Game James” narrative is that Harden’s last two playoff runs have been two of his best, statistically speaking. Over his last 21 playoff games, Harden has averaged 25.6 points and eight assists on 64.8 true shooting and 47.6/34.4/86.5 shooting splits. He was mostly brilliant in his run with Brooklyn last postseason while dealing with a Grade 2 hamstring strain that severely hampered him.

Another interesting note — Harden’s teams have lost to the eventual NBA champion in three of the last four years.

“I tell him to be himself,” Joel Embiid said Thursday. “He’s been doing a great job of being a playmaker, but we need him to be aggressive and really score the ball. ... But he just has to be himself, not worry about people talking about pressure or whatever happened in the past. You look back at what he’s accomplished and what he’s done, he had to play against a freaking dynasty. It would’ve been hard for anybody to beat those Golden State teams, so bad timing. But I’m sure he’s going to be fine.”

A lot has been made of Harden the playmaker vs. Harden the scorer. A player as talented as Harden likely can’t be confined to one or the other. Allowing the veteran guard to feel the game out seems to be the option his team is going with.

“I like both, really,” Doc Rivers said Wednesday. “And this is different for James. James is playing with another great player. In Houston or wherever James used to be ‘the guy’ — many times the only guy — offensively. Now you need him to do both. ...

“You want him to be an aggressive scorer at times, you want him to be a playmaker at times. Joel doesn’t need to be involved, he’ll get involved, but there’s time you need to get Tyrese [Maxey] involved or Tobias [Harris] involved. James is an excellent passer. We need him to be both though. We don’t want him to be one or the other. We want him to be James Harden — aggressive, but also a playmaker.”

While Harden has been surrounded by great talent at times in his career — most notably Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving when all three were available — he’s never had anyone playing alongside him quite like Joel Embiid.

Embiid’s dominance as the first center to lead the league in scoring since Shaquille O’Neal is unique for Harden. Most shooters would salivate over the catch-and-shoot opportunities Embiid provides. For Harden, it’s been an adjustment because catch-and-shoot opportunities are new to him.

To Harden’s credit, Rivers has lauded the work his point guard has put into it, but it’s vital that it translates when the Raptors swarm Embiid and the ball lands in a wide-open Harden’s hands.

“You’ve got to put the work in,” Harden said. “Yesterday I stayed and took a million shots, it felt like. I haven’t had to do it in a long time, but it’s something that I can do and will have plenty of opportunities to do.”

The Sixers don’t need Harden to be the Rockets version that was forced to carry an offense on his back. Something resembling the player he was just last season with Brooklyn would do — find the superstar in favorable matchups and positions, and then score when it’s there.

Harden is 32 now and hasn’t played in the NBA Finals since his last season in Oklahoma City a decade ago.

When asked if he felt any added pressure given the context of his career and the circumstances of his trade to the Sixers, Harden was succinct again.

“Pressure? No. I feel good. I’m ready to hoop.”

The optimal version of Harden showing up this postseason would take pressure off everyone in the Sixers’ organization.

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