James Harden is normally pretty even-keeled during his postgame availabilities. He might give reporters some playful snark to questions, but he’s generally straightforward with his answers.
But after Wednesday’s 105-94 win over the Magic, The Beard was quite tickled by a fact a reporter let him know. Harden was 6 of 10 from the three, with the six makes being a season high and his highest mark in a Sixers uniform. What made Harden giddy was the fact that half those triples came off catch-and-shoot opportunities.
“We’re working on it, so that’s pretty exciting,” Harden said. “I don’t have to do too much, just catch and shoot, but you put the work in — I work on it every day. The opportunities are gonna come whether it’s [off] Joel [Embiid], whether it’s dribble penetration — guys get into the paint, create mismatches, create double teams — and I get a shot from it.”
When Harden got traded to the Sixers nearly a year ago to the day, he found himself in a predicament. For so long, Harden had been “the president” in Houston, as Doc Rivers would say. In Brooklyn, the Nets’ big three was never healthy enough to establish a true pecking order.
And when he arrived in Philadelphia, he was playing alongside a player unlike any other he’d teamed up with: a dominant, high-scoring big man. While it could present his best chance at winning, playing with Joel Embiid also presented new challenges for The Beard.
One of the things that proved to be difficult for Harden was taking catch-and-shoot threes. It sounds silly because most players would prefer open looks of this nature, but Harden had become such an elite shooter off the dribble thanks to his deadly step-back jumper.
There were moments last season where Harden appeared almost averse to such shot attempts. There were plays where the ball would swing to a wide-open Harden and he’d either pass the shot up or would even feel like he had to take a dribble before he could shoot.
Nights like Wednesday show Harden’s progress and how much work he’s put into it.
“[It’s] because he saw [he was] getting that last year,” Rivers said. “And he’s never been a player that the ball was coming to him for spot-up threes. But now they are.”
Generally speaking, Harden is having one of the more efficient seasons of his career, especially from deep. He’s hitting 39.4 percent from beyond the arc on 7.4 attempts. Harden isn’t attempting double-digit treys a game anymore (though 7.4 is still a VERY healthy volume!), but this would be career-best year percentage-wise.
Harden is shooting a blistering 47.5 percent on catch-and-shoot threes this season, per NBA.com. He’s attempting 1.7 of those shots a game. What’s stark is the frequency with which he’s taking them. This season, 11.9 percent of his shots are catch-and-shoot threes. Last season, the frequency was almost half that (6.6 percent). For even more context, Harden attempted a career-high 13.2 threes a game in 2018-19. Only 3.7 percent were of the catch-and-shoot variety.
Embiid believes those numbers can be even higher, but he’s seen marked improvement from his running mate.
“I’ve been on him,” Embiid said. “You could tell from the beginning since he got here that’s not something he was used to, that’s not something he was comfortable with, but he’s gotten better over time and he’s taking more and more. He needs to take more than he does, but it’s a good step. He’s getting better and he’s knocking them down.”
If the Sixers are hoping to parlay their recent run into playoff success, the health and play of Harden and Embiid will be paramount. Something as simple as Harden taking and making catch-and-shoot threes can add to Embiid’s scoring dominance and make the Sixers’ half-court offense hum.
Harden has put in the work. The box score — and win column — are proof.