James Harden played at an All-NBA caliber level this season. No, he’s not the 35-points-per-game scorer he once was. But he could be scoring more points per game if he wasn’t doing what it takes to win — adapting and setting up Joel Embiid, helping his superstar teammate (likely) win his first ever MVP trophy.
But what’s the ideal mix for Philadelphia from their 10-time All-Star point guard? Do they want him setting the table or dropping 25-plus points per game?
Stephen A. Smith believes James Harden is in more need of a standout run in the playoffs than Joel Embiid: pic.twitter.com/wA34XTqiyQ— Sixerdaily (@Sixerdaily) April 14, 2023
The Sixers have a commanding 2-0 series lead as we head to Brooklyn for Game 3. The 2023 Dimes King has shot 9-for-21 from distance, good for a lethal 43 percent this postseason.
Still, he’s only 5-for-16 outside of that Game 1 second-quarter heater. And inside the arc has been a mighty struggle. Harden is just 2-for-13 fro two point territory this series, presenting some pretty glaring inside-outside splits that leave fans wondering just how healthy he might be right now.
In Game 2, he struggled and was just passive enough to give some fans flashbacks of his Game 6 performance vs. the Miami Heat. They’re going to need him to be much, much better if they want to win another 14 games this postseason. That’s the magic number they’ll need to hoist that Larry O’Brien.
Tyrese Maxey saved Harden from more scrutiny than he’s getting with his own sizzling performance in Game 2. ’Rese Lightning dropped 33 points, draining 6-for-13 from deep. That came after Harden’s own 23-point, seven-triple, and 13-assist game in the series opener.
James Harden became the first player in NBA history to record 13 assists with 7 made threes in a playoff game today.— Bradeaux (@BradeauxNBA) April 16, 2023
Insane performance. pic.twitter.com/iwVDqITU51
But at practice Wednesday, Maxey was asked about Harden’s struggles finishing at the rim, specifically.
Even if Harden is struggling to convert, Maxey was asked, does that still open things up for other players when James collapses the paint?
“Yeah, I mean he’s getting there,” Maxey said. “He’s just gotta finish it, so it’s not like he can’t get there, he’s getting to the rim. I’m not worried about James making layups, but you’re right, when he gets to the rim, the defense has to collapse, and they know that he’s a threat to score in there so because he’s a threat to score and because he’s James Harden he’s gonna attract so much attention on drives that him being a great playmaker (he) can kick out to shooters, dump off to Joel [Embiid] and that gets us some open threes as well.”
Maxey is right. When Harden is getting paint touches, even if he’s not converting, it still collapses the D enough to create open looks for Embiid in his elbow pocket or kick outs to snipers. And against a team like Brooklyn, that’s good enough.
But to win another series beyond that, they’ll need him to convert. It’s that simple.
Here is Harden’s shot chart thus far. You can see some green-hot shooting outside, and that jumble of red X’s around the paint, where he’s absorbing contact without getting calls, missing some layups, and getting blocked a few too many times:
This regular season, Harden attempted a career low just 16.5 percent of his shot profile from within 0-3 feet from the rim, per BBall-ref.com. He converted a very respectable 61 percent of those, however. In the first two playoff games, that 61 percent clip is down to 16.7 percent.
Nevertheless, Doc Rivers certainly doesn’t sound overly concerned. Rivers talked about what the Sixers need to do as a team in order to make the six-time All-NBA First Teamer’s life easier.
“Just create space,” Rivers said. “We showed it on film today, our spacing was terrible. In the entire first half. And when James did get into the paint, it was two of our guys standing there. Like in basketball, when you get into the paint, it’s OK if two defensive players are there but two of your guys shouldn’t be there as well because that makes it easier for them to help. I thought our spacing was really poor in transition especially. And that’s where it has to be at its best. We have to run wide. We had too many guards, too many threes, fours, running down the middle of the floor where they should be running out wide. And we didn’t do that for whatever reason.”
We know Harden is gaining separation on his step-backs. And we know he’s doing well shooting threes off the catch too, which is arguably the most important shot of this team’s playoff hopes. He’s been especially ready to fire when P.J. Tucker corrals an offensive rebound and kicks it back out to his fellow sneaker-head and friend.
But look at some of Harden’s two-point tries. You can see he’s getting past his initial man, and getting to his spots, but then he’s not really able to elevate, or decelerate, or find the touch to finish a handful of them the way he was before the Achilles flare up he suffered March 20.
I suppose a couple of those could have been called fouls, which would have improved that 2-for-13 mark.
And here below are the ones that Doc talked about, where it’s pretty clear that in transition there’s a wing (in this case Tobias Harris) filling a traditional passing lane, meeting Harden in the paint, luring extra defenders who are then able to contest.
I bet next game we see Harris and others flare out and spot up in these situations instead:
Rivers’ former point guard from their Orlando Magic days, Jacque Vaughn tried lobbying officials for help. And on Wednesday, Rivers also tried some lobbying of his own, advocating on behalf of his studs.
“[The Nets] are definitely conscious of not fouling,” Rivers said. “But I will say, they did foul. And then statistically, and this is more of a league stat, not our stat, the two guys who get fouled the most in the league — in the league — and it’s not called, are James [Harden] and Joel [Embiid]. In the whole league. And so that’s a fact. So yeah, they’re getting fouled. But [the Nets] are also doing a very good job of trying to keep their hands back as well. Because that’s what your taught when you’re playing a James... but he’s clever enough to still get you.”
A reporter asked for more about that interesting stat.
“Well, that’s not an assessment, that’s a fact. That is not from us.”
I’m not sure where Rivers pulled this league stat, (Twitter sleuths do your job!) but I do think it passes the eye-test. Embiid often has players hanging all over him and you occasionally get the sense referees don’t feel like slowing the game down to a crawl, opting instead to “let them play.”
And then with James, it just seems like Sixers fans are destined to pay for Harden’s ole Houston grifter rep sometimes. And the slower he gets, the less likely he is to get much benefit of the doubt.
Here below, in a game where P.J. Tucker, Paul Reed and Georges Niang were called for setting moving screens, the future Hall of Famer gets hockey-checked out of a play, no call, leading to another Cam Johnson dagger:
Incidental contact here I guess, takes Harden out of the play as Johnson keeps cooking them. pic.twitter.com/sIuCnCo0gy— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 18, 2023
It seems as if the officials don’t mind when a guy like Mikal Bridges makes a non-basketball move, but they are hell-bent on not getting snookered by Harden:
Mikal jumps sideways and back to make this look like a foul to one official. The crafty move sends Harris to the bench with 2 fouls. Pretty unnatural move gets rewarded. pic.twitter.com/6OxlsrkM2k— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 17, 2023
Joel Embiid defended his point guard postgame Monday as well:
“I thought James, bad shooting night, but he did a good job of managing, and just keep going,” Embiid said. “He was aggressive and it’s kind of crazy that he’s not getting any free throws. I think he’s been getting fouled a lot. And I don’t think he’s been to the free throw line at all during these two games, which is kind of insane to think about. So hopefully, they change that.”
But here’s the bottomline: Harden has to be better at finishing.
Sure, the Sixers can improve their spacing, and the officials can hopefully do a better job of not unfairly using James as some poster-boy for their subjective foul rules to quote his former coach Steve Nash, who preceded Vaughn in Brooklyn.
Officiating was the Anonymous NBA Player’s biggest concern in a recent Athletic poll:
If I were a betting man, I’d bank on improved spacing from the Sixers but not necessarily better calls for Harden once they find themselves in enemy territory (like Boston?).
But if he’s not quite physically healthy, and that’s what we’re witnessing, they have a major problem on their hands, one that will bleed straight into their offseason — as Harden is likely to opt out of his contract and test the open market.
When Harden asks for a max, Morey’s gonna have to say “honestly I would but there are just too many officiating crews out there who hate you, buddy.”— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 18, 2023
The Sixers could probably beat this Nets team without Harden. And he’s looked slow enough where I’ve half-joked with buddies they should load manage him until the second round.
They won’t be able to beat a team who can throw Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum at Harden, also sending help at the rim from the likes of Robert Williams or Al Horford. If The Beard continues to look the way he has through these last two ballgames, there’s trouble looming.
That version of the Beard shooting 16 percent at the cup just won’t cut it.
So Sixer fans can hope that he’s able to “play his way healthy” or “shake the rust off” or “regress to the mean inside the arc.” Somewhat better spacing, a few more calls, continuing to improve from that heel ailment — choose your favorite narrative and go with it.
This version of Harden has been good enough to vanquish the Nets. It won’t be good enough for much more than that.