At times when it felt like the Miami Heat were about to find a way to gain just enough momentum to potentially steal Game 4 from the Sixers, James Harden ensured that wouldn’t happen.
In helping to lift the Sixers to a 116-108 victory to even the series at two games apiece, Harden delivered one of the most well-rounded offensive performances of his Sixers career to this point. When all was said and done, he finished with 31 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds on 8 of 18 from the field and 6 of 10 from three-point range. It was his second 30-point game since coming to Philly, and snapped a streak of 15-straight games scoring fewer than 25 points that extended back to the regular season.
“I said it before the game, I felt like he was gonna have a big game tonight,” Doc Rivers said after the game. “I didn’t know 31 points. I didn’t know all the other stuff. But you can just sense it, you know?”
Even if he hadn’t been scoring at the rate he’s been expected to prior to Sunday night, there’s no denying that Harden has been the Sixers’ most stabilizing force. In these playoffs, the Sixers have a net rating of +8 with Harden on the court, compared to -5.3 with him off. When he’s at the controls of the offense, the Sixers just look much more composed and organized with Harden at the controls.
Game 4 was no exception. With the Heat doubling and fronting Joel Embiid, Harden fed him some excellent entry passes for a bunch of easy looks under the rim to get him going early. And all throughout the game, Harden was consistently finding open shooters and cutters to help keep the Sixers in front a majority of the night.
But frankly, everyone had been itching for a true classic Harden takeover. That is, when he makes scoring in bunches look comically easy by relentlessly attacking the defense and making them pay in a multitude of ways. That kind of aggressiveness was what everyone was hoping for with Embiid sidelined for the first two games of this series and the Sixers eager to try and earn a split in Miami. That, of course, didn’t happen.
Harden finally flashed a bit of that Sunday night. All night, he was attacking weaker defenders, pushing the pace in transition, and confidently taking, and making, the step-back threes he had been struggling to hit to this point in the playoffs to open up even more driving lanes.
“I just took what the defense gave me,” Harden said. “Same shots, just made some. Nothing really changed, man. I just made some shots. I mean obviously, that’s a game-changer, but being aggressive.”
It’s something the Sixers desperately needed. With Jimmy Butler putting in some serious work on the offensive end (40 points, including 25 in the second half), the Heat managed to consistently claw back into the game and remain within striking distance despite another horrid night from deep (7 of 35 overall). Things were feeling somewhat dire to start the fourth quarter with Embiid on the bench and the Heat gaining momentum despite the Sixers holding onto a four-point lead.
All Harden did was pop off for 16 points, shooting 5 of 9 from field and 4 of 6 from deep, in the fourth to put the Heat away for good. His fingerprints were all over the quarter. He commanded an 8-0 run, which included an assist on a Tobias Harris three and a step-back from deep in transition, that pushed the Sixers’ lead back to double-digits. When the Heat gained a bit of momentum at various points throughout the quarter, he either drilled a three or took it to the hole to quell the Miami run. And, of course, there was the capper:
JAMES HARDEN DAGGER.— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 9, 2022
BEARD IS BACK. pic.twitter.com/0Z8QhdojLM
“That’s the reason why we brought him here,” Embiid said. “Since he got here, he’s been adjusting based on what we need from him. Whether it’s playmaking and, just tonight, going and getting a bucket. Especially based on how they were guarding everybody else. And making tough shots, he’s been doing that his whole career and that’s why he’s here.”
Expecting that kind of performance every night from Harden is obviously short-sighted, as would be thinking that the Sixers need him to have that kind of outing every night to keep winning. They’ve shown throughout this playoff run that massive contributions can come from anywhere. Whether it’s Embiid, even with a broken face and bad thumb, dictating the tone on both ends of the court, Tobias Harris playing the best two-way ball of his career, or Tyrese Maxey providing an avalanche of instant offense, they’ve displayed some impressive balance.
But Harden showing he’s still capable of turning back the clock and single-handedly leading his team to victory in the biggest moments is truly significant. With that kind of capability, the ceiling is the roof for these Sixers.