James Harden is having one of the most fluctuant series in NBA playoff history.
His 45-point masterclass in Game 1 had shades of Allen Iverson. In fact he was the first Sixer to score 45 points in a playoff game since The Answer did so in 2003.
His performances in Games 2 and 3 reminded folks of another former Sixer. We’ll just leave it at that.
Doc Rivers knew he had to get his star point guard going. So, he did something he doesn’t typically do: he sent Harden a song ahead of Game 4 to help motivate him.
“For a day and a half, James had to get himself back,” Rivers said. “I sent him a gospel song before the game, which he’ll tell you if you want. (Chuckles.) The title of it is, [‘You Know My Name.’
The 10-time All-Star, future first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the 75 greatest players of all time sure reminded everyone who he was Sunday. Harden was brilliant in dropping 42 points and hitting the game-winning three in the Sixers’ 116-115 overtime win.
If the song wasn’t enough, Harden had even more motivation ahead of Game 4.
On Feb. 13, a mass shooting occurred on the campus of Michigan State University. Three students were killed and five others sustained injuries. One of those five was John Hao, a Chinese international student, who was paralyzed from the chest down.
Harden found out that Hao was a big a fan of his. He was able to send Hao a pair of his game-worn sneakers and the two Face-Timed, with Harden encouraging Hao with what has been and will continue to be a long recovery. Harden also promised to get Hao out to a Sixers game when he was physically able.
Harden made good on that promise Sunday, hosting Hao and his family for Game 4. The two shared a moment as Harden stopped mid-warmup to embrace Hao.
Awesome moment. John Hao is here as a guest of James Harden. Hao was one of the victims from the shooting at Michigan State. pic.twitter.com/4nt5xMSloJ— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) May 7, 2023
After the two spoke back in February, Harden rocked a white headband in honor of Hao and went on to drop 31 points in a win over the Grizzlies on Feb. 23. That was one Harden’s five 30-point performances on the season.
With Hao now in attendance, Harden came up with a monster effort.
“He’s my good luck charm,” Harden said postgame. “I’ve been keeping in contact with him. For a tragedy like that to happen … there’s a lot of nonsense that’s going on in the world. So for him to be a victim of that, it’s heartbreaking. But he’s strong, he’s bouncing back, he’s recovering very well. And I feel like it’s my job to just give him that light — that smile that he deserves, that he needs. Hopefully, today was one of those days where he’s smiling. That’s all I’m here for.”
The one trait these Sixers seem to share is a short-term memory. Whether it was Embiid forgetting Cameron Johnson posterized him in Game 2 against the Nets or Harden forgetting his combined 5-for-28 shooting output for Games 2 and 3.
“I did? I don’t even remember that. No,” Harden said.
What’s easy to remember is all the work Harden put in on a particular aspect of his game when he arrived with the Sixers.
Playing next to Embiid, Harden was in a place to get catch-and-shoot opportunities, something not always afforded to him as a primary ball handler. In order for the pair to coalesce Harden knew he had to take and make more of those shots
So, he worked on it. All the time. There were plenty of bumps along the way — like Harden sometimes literally needing to put one dribble down to be able to shoot, even if wide open — but he kept working.
And on the biggest play of the game Sunday, Harden sunk the game-winner on a corner catch-and-shoot three off an Embiid double team. It was almost poetic.
“Isn’t it hilarious?” Rivers said. “I watched him this summer, we watch him every day, and he works on it. He works on it, but it’s something he hadn’t done his whole life. And the last shot to win this game was a catch-and-shoot shot from James. It should tell every freaking kid, ‘Work on your weaknesses, keep working on ‘em, and you never know.’ Tonight was that night for him.”
Surely Hao provided Harden a little extra motivation, but as Rivers said, the performance was all about Harden himself.
Though Doc might have played a small part.
“I’m on my way to the game and I get a text from Doc, and I’m like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” Harden said. “It was a gospel song. So I’m like, ‘All right, whatever.’ So I just tell my homies, ‘Let’s play the song.’ And it’s a seven-minute song. I let the whole song play and I’m like all right, there’s got to be some kind of good ju-ju in this song. Whatever he’s feeling, I want to feel like that. I guess it worked, so whatever.”
The thought of Harden being in a car on the way to the arena with his friends and blasting a seven-minute long gospel song suggested by Doc Rivers is objectively hilarious. It’s likely a slight departure from what’s normally on Harden’s playlist. We’re talking about a guy that famously hangs out with Lil Baby and has been known to go to a gentlemen’s club or two.
One thing is for sure: Harden is going to need to queue it up again ahead of Game 5.
“You better play it again Tuesday,” P.J. Tucker said while sitting next to him. “You better play it again.”
If the Sixers want to take this series, they’ll need Harden to keep playing the hits.