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James Harden ‘hurting’ becomes biggest Sixers storyline during stretch run

James Harden played his worst game as a Sixer Monday and Doc Rivers said postgame that his star guard is “hurting.”

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Going into Monday night’s game against the Bulls, the Sixers’ vibes were immaculate.

The team had won eight straight and was rising to the challenge of the NBA’s toughest post-All-Star break schedule. Joel Embiid’s MVP case was becoming nearly ironclad with each passing game. The Sixers were percentage points ahead of the Celtics and nipping at the heels of the Bucks.

It’s amazing how one game can change things.

This isn’t an overreaction to a loss. Every team is due for the occasional clunker. The Sixers still have the best record in the NBA since Dec. 9 and the league’s best offense during that stretch.

But their offensively-anemic, double-overtime loss to the Bulls Monday night revealed that James Harden, who had his worst game as a Sixer, is less than 100 percent. The health of the maestro of the Sixers’ offensive symphony suddenly becomes the biggest storyline during the stretch run.

Again, losses happen. Harden has struggled occasionally here and there in the middle of a terrific season. But Monday felt a little different. Harden went 2 of 15 from the field and 0 of 6 from three for five points. The five points and 14 percent shooting are his lowest marks of the season. It was just the third time this season Harden has failed to make a three. He had 12 assists but also had five turnovers.

Sure, a ton of credit goes to Patrick Beverley, who hounded Harden all night before fouling out in the second overtime. Credit also goes to head coach Billy Donovan. Harden is averaging just 12.3 points a game while shooting 18.2 percent from the field and 15 percent from three in three games against Chicago this season.

But what was most troubling is the way Harden looked. He was deferential for most of the second half, most noticeably down the stretch when the offense was being run through Embiid and Tyrese Maxey. Even after Embiid fouled out, Harden oddly assumed the star center’s duties at the elbow instead of acting as the team’s point guard.

Even Doc Rivers admitted postgame it wasn’t anything the Bulls did schematically to stop Harden. He just had a rough night.

“No, he just didn’t play well,” Rivers said postgame. “I don’t think it’s them — at least not tonight. I thought he was hurting a little bit. I thought our pace was so slow — a lot of late-clock possessions. When we’ve done that this year, typically we have not won the game. Or if we’ve won the game, it’s been like tonight.”

Rivers added that Harden’s left foot, which was the reason the 10-time All-Star missed two games on the Sixers’ latest road trip, is still bothering him.

Unfortunately, the loss to Chicago had shades of the Game 6 loss to Miami last season, where Harden was clearly compromised and didn’t want the ball at all late in the game.

Which begs the question: why was he playing?

Harden’s struggles sunk the entire offense. That’s not a dig at Harden — quite the opposite. He’s made the Sixers’ offense hum all season long, so it’s noticeable when he’s not himself. Which makes it more puzzling is that such a critical piece to the roster was playing while hurt in a late-March game against a team that might not even make the playoffs.

Much respect goes to Harden for being a gamer for the bulk of his career. He historically rarely ever missed time before arriving in Brooklyn. He’d been one of the league leaders in minutes for nearly a decade.

But he’s 33 now. He had a hamstring strain so severe that it lingered for over a calendar year and bled into two seasons. He had an injury to his right foot that cost him 14 games earlier this season.

As of now, Harden is fifth in the league in minutes per game. There’s evidence that indicates Harden is at his best when he gets rest. Harden has scored over 30 points five times this season. Two of those games were the first two of the season. Another was the first game out of the All-Star break.

Playing over 46 minutes on a night where he did not look like himself seems counterintuitive. The easy thing is to blame Rivers, which you will all have no trouble doing. Make no mistake, part of it does fall on Rivers, but it falls on everyone — Rivers, Harden, the medical staff, etc.

There are only 11 games left in the regular season. The Sixers have a great shot at the two seed and an outside shot to steal the one seed, but seeding is irrelevant if Harden isn’t healthy.

Maybe when all is said and done, this is an overreaction to one game. Maybe Harden bounces back Wednesday in Chicago and puts any concern to rest.

But a choice between pushing Harden to close the regular season or giving him rest ahead of the postseason isn’t a choice at all.

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