One of the biggest storylines for the Philadelphia 76ers heading into the playoffs was James Harden’s health.
After an injury-plagued several seasons, dating back to March 2021, spanning from his Brooklyn Nets days through his (still relatively brief) Sixers’ tenure, the 2023 assist king has battled some hamstring and foot ailments.
The 10-time All-Star would pop up on the injury report from time to time in the second half of this season with foot or heel soreness, missing the occasional second of a back-to-back.
And after missing four games in a row in late March following a flare up, he still didn’t look quite right upon returning, so all eyes were focused on how he might fare during the early portion of Game 1 vs. Mikal Bridges and the Nets.
And fans wanted to see if the full eight days off paid dividends for the team’s star point guard.
With players like Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith and Nic Claxton, there are multiple agile defenders capable of switching, so Jacque Vaughn’s group at least has a theoretical recipe in place to limit the damage Harden can do.
Well, Spencer Dinwiddie didn’t seem to take Harden’s first step for granted here, so you be the judge:
Harden actually made a bit of history, becoming the first player to drain seven triples to go with 12 dimes.
Players to record 7+ threes and dish out 12+ assists in a playoff game in NBA history:— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) April 15, 2023
That's the list. pic.twitter.com/eJWo8vDreN
During the game, Harden seemed spry enough to dust his man in this one, sending defenders backwards when he wanted to get to his patented step-back, and sending them right when he wanted to go left.
But for those on Achilles watch, he did struggle mightily finishing plays, lacking elevation once he got deep into the paint. The Beard was just 1 of 8 from inside the arc.
But sheesh, did he make up for it and more with a barrage of threes.
James Harden has FIVE threes before halftime pic.twitter.com/tzVJvN8BOn— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 15, 2023
James nailed 4-of-5 from beyond the arc in the second period. That has been his time to shine lately. The only one he bricked was a major heat-check that’s hard to begrudge him for jacking up.
Since returning from a four-game absence at the tail end of the regular season, Harden totaled 83 points in five games. A surprisingly high 47 of that total came during second quarters.
And the mini-trend continued on Saturday, as The Beard dropped 12 of his 23 points, 5 of his 13 dimes, and the aforementioned 5 of his 7 total triples in that second.
That’s typically the portion of the game when Joel Embiid takes a rest and it’s time for James to cook.
After the 121-101 victory, Harden was asked to assess his health.
“Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t make a layup but that’s the least of my worries,” Harden said, chuckling himself and drawing a laugh from reporters in attendance at the Wells Fargo Center.
“But yeah, my legs, my body feels powerful, feels strong. There was a stint where I played, I think, 13 minutes straight from the end of the first quarter ... and then the whole second quarter. And I felt really good. So the work that I put in, and this is the reason for it.”
Harden said he expected to play over 40 minutes prior to the game but because the Sixers were so good with him out there (James was a team- and game-high +20), he got to check out early and finished having logged just 36 minutes.
Harden opened up about his heel upon returning a couple of weeks ago.
“I don’t think it’s just gonna completely go away, but y’know, I’m out here,” Harden admitted back on March 30, drawing a bit of concern from fans.
But he would not pop up on the injury report as the season drew to a close. So has the issue fully resolved? Probably not. But Harden’s 23 points and 13 dimes proved instrumental in defeating a Nets team that was pretty much hellbent on making anyone but Joel Embiid beat them.
“They were double-teaming Joel so somebody else gotta make shots and be aggressive,” Harden said. “Just put the work in and you live with the results…and you gotta make some shots.”
Harden gave credit to the man he says is ”the MVP,” in Embiid, who finished with 26 points, two blocks, five boards, and made all 11 of his freebies. “It makes it easy. He’s gonna get his buckets no matter what. That’s just how good he is. And then we’re making shots, we’re attacking the basket, and we’re just generating easier shots for us.”
But Harden believes that Game 2 will be the most difficult test of the entire series.
“With that being said, Game 2 is gonna be much more difficult,” James said. “They’re gonna make adjustments and we’re gonna make adjustments. It’s gonna be the most important game of the series and we gotta come out with the same mindset.”
The second quarters have been his recently. Hopefully he can continue to ramp up and get back to finishing around the basket. But like he says, the layups are the least of his concerns. For now, Philadelphia will hope that he starts to look healthier and healthier as the playoffs march on.