It was all good just a week ago.
After two comfortable home wins and a Herculean effort from Joel Embiid in Game 3, the Sixers found themselves up 3-0 on the Toronto Raptors, fully in the driver’s seat to move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. But after two straight duds, including their Game 5 loss on Monday in which they couldn’t even break 90 points on their home court, they now find themselves on the brink of being the fourth team in NBA history to allow their opponent to come back from a 3-0 deficit and force a Game 7.
Among the many things that have gone wrong over the last two games, James Harden’s continued inefficiency as a scorer has shone particularly bright. Game 5 was another underwhelming outing: 15 points on just 4 of 11 shooting to go along with five turnovers in 40 minutes of action, the second time this series he had more turnovers than made baskets.
“Give Toronto credit. I thought they defended both guys pretty well,” Doc Rivers said post-game about both Harden and Tyrese Maxey’s Game 5 struggles.
Harden’s raw numbers so far against the Raptors are a mixed bag. He’s still averaging 18.4 points and 9.2 assists per game while making 38.1% of his threes on over five attempts per game. Yet he’s shooting just 37.6% from the field overall and is turning the ball over 3.6 times per game, with his 18 total turnovers being seventh-most among all playoff participants.
Throughout this series, Harden has made it a point to actively search out mismatches, namely Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., to find open driving lanes leading to kick-outs to the corners and finishes at the rim. It played a huge part in Harden’s two playmaking masterclasses in Games 1 and 2 as well as his most efficient scoring night to this point in the series in Game 3 that kept the Sixers within striking distance.
But with VanVleet going down in the second half of Game 4, the Raptors have started to lean heavily on longer, more athletic lineups that have given the Sixers all kinds of issues even dating back to the regular season. Trent Jr., at 6-foot-5 with a 6-9 wingspan, is most often the smallest player on the court, meaning weak links for Harden to attack are hard to come by. And with the Raptors becoming less and less concerned with Harden’s ability to break through the first line of defense, passing lanes are closing.
The results have been ugly. Harden has made 36.8 percent of his two-point shots, the second-worst mark in the league among players that have taken at least 10 shots per game in these playoffs. He’s also shot just 37.9 percent on drives this series, only making 11.8 percent (2 of 17) of his attempts in the non-restricted area of the paint.
Whether as a direct result of that lack of success or not, it’s led to some head-scratching, out-of-character Harden possessions, especially in Game 5. He passed up opportunities to spot-up from deep, stopped attacking the paint when he had windows to do so, and was loose with the ball. Harden is undoubtedly one of the smartest players in the game, and he has seemingly reverted to overthinking everything. For someone who will go down as one of the greatest scorers this league has ever seen, it’s a level of passivity that’s particularly dumbfounding.
“I’ve been saying all season since he got here, he just needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself,” Embiid said after the game about him wanting Harden to take more shots. “That’s not really my job. That’s probably on Coach to talk to him and tell him to take more shots, especially if they’re going to guard me the way they’ve been guarding. But that’s really not my job. But we all need to be better.”
Finding ways to get Harden into a better rhythm as a scorer is imperative. It could be as simple as Harden and Embiid running more pick-and-rolls, which had been a bread-and-butter action for the pair since Harden came to town and something Doc Rivers hinted at after the game.
“We’ve got to get James going downhill in some more actions that he likes, and more comfortable,” Rivers said.
Acquiring Harden was to not only provide the Sixers the kind of playmaking presence they’ve lacked for years, but also a scoring outlet to take some pressure off of Embiid on a nightly basis. With Embiid visibly struggling to play through the torn ligament in his thumb and the Raptors throwing aggressive double-teams at him constantly, these are exactly the kinds of situations Harden is meant to step up in. So far, that hasn’t been the case. Simply put, the Sixers need him to be better if they want to avoid being etched in the record books forever.