James Harden isn’t what he used to be, but he’s what the Sixers needed

Tobias Harris would often have extra to say, but he was making an attempt to take it simple on his windpipe after absorbing an inadvertent Bam Adebayo elbow to the neck in the second half of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ 116-108 win in opposition to the Miami Heat in Sunday’s Game 4 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal collection.

Harris simply bought to the coronary heart of the matter when requested about James Harden‘s 31-point night time, together with 16 of the Sixers’ 27 factors in the decisive fourth quarter.

“What we want him to do on a nightly foundation is what he does,” Harris stated in a raspy voice. “Just be strong for us and decide up on the protection of how they’re taking part in him.”

This is the new imaginative and prescient for James Harden.

He would not want to reprise his 2018 MVP kind for the Sixers to win.

He would not want to replenish the field rating or hit game-ending clutch pictures. He would not even want to take 20 pictures, which used to be a low quantity for him.

Harden took simply 18 pictures in Game 4, but it was loads as a result of he scored or assisted on 54 of the 98 factors (55%) the Sixers scored whereas he was on the courtroom.

This model of James Harden, the 32-year-old one the Sixers traded for in February with the concept of forging a long-term partnership, simply wants to be strong, and set up the workforce’s offense primarily based on how the protection is taking part in him.

Joel Embiid (24 factors, 11 rebounds) can do the relaxation. Harris (13 factors, 4 assists) and Tyrese Maxey (18 factors, 4 assists) can fill in the scoring and playmaking gaps. Danny Green can area the flooring (11 factors on 3-for-4 taking pictures from 3).

But Harden has to be the quarterback.

“He does an awesome job of evaluating the recreation,” Harris stated. “Of the place he could make performs, the place he can take his pictures. Tonight he bought going. You might see the confidence in him of getting downhill first, after which the 3-ball opened it up for him.

“He sees so many defensive coverages on the market. Lots of occasions they zone up the courtroom as effectively, so generally it is powerful for him to be extraordinarily aggressive on the offensive finish. But when he’s in a groove like [Sunday night], we simply get him the ball and hold it going.”

The Heat have pressured Harden all through this collection by denying him area to function, particularly when Embiid will not be on the courtroom.

In the first two video games, which Embiid missed with a concussion and a damaged orbital bone, Miami swarmed Harden with a number of defenders or threw a zone at him to muck up the Sixers’ offense.

According to Second Spectrum, the common closest defender to Harden in Game 1 was 3.7 ft. In Game 2 it was down to 3.1 ft, the closest in any recreation he has performed in the previous three seasons.

In Game 3, when Embiid returned to the lineup, the distinction was much more pronounced. With Embiid on the courtroom Miami gave him. 3.7 ft, but simply 2.6 ft when Embiid was off of it.

Taking area away from Harden is like depriving a hearth of oxygen. Former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and past-and-present common supervisor Daryl Morey tried to construct an empire in Houston round the radical, unabashed creation of area for Harden — and practically succeeded have been it not for the dynastic Golden State Warriors of the similar period or Chris Paul‘s injured hamstring.

Morey, the workforce’s president of basketball operations, had a lot the similar imaginative and prescient for the Sixers when he began making an attempt to commerce for Harden primarily from the second he took the job in the fall of 2020.

If he might create a roster to area the flooring round Harden, but with Embiid as the all-world co-star, there was no telling what type of offensive juggernaut they may turn into.

But the actuality of Harden’s age and present skills have been obvious in his quick time in Philadelphia. Whether he’s misplaced a step — or three — it is clear he cannot defy time and area the similar as he as soon as did.

The Heat have seized on Harden’s incapacity to get by defenders as he used to all through this collection. But in Game 4, he flipped the script.

He began draining 3-pointers to draw defenders out farther from the basket. He attacked the zone defenses and double-teams Miami threw at him. All of which created area, the place there had been little or no earlier than.

According to Second Spectrum monitoring knowledge, Harden created 3.6 ft of separation with Embiid on the courtroom Sunday and 5.1 ft with Embiid off the flooring.

Four of the 5 pictures Harden took with Embiid off the flooring have been 3-pointers, which is partly why he had a lot area. He additionally hit six of the 10 3-pointers he took on the night time, after struggling from behind the arc the first three video games, taking pictures 21% from 3.

So a few of that is simply hitting pictures as opposed to lacking them. But for Harden, it is all the time about area. When he has it — whether or not he creates the area or the workforce’s offensive system does — he can discover his rhythm and management a recreation. When he would not, he seems to be misplaced and annoyed.

Sunday was the model of Harden the Sixers have been ready for, even when he nonetheless isn’t the Harden of outdated. Because when he’s studying the flooring and regulating the recreation as he did in Game 4, the Sixers seem like a workforce that may beat anybody.

“Since he’s gotten right here he’s been adjusting primarily based on what we want from him,” Embiid stated. “Whether it is playmaking or tonight — simply going and getting a bucket primarily based on how they have been guarding everybody else. Making powerful pictures. He’s been doing that his complete profession.”

Harden downplayed his contributions to Sunday’s win in contrast to the struggles he’s had all through the collection.

“Nothing actually modified,” Harden shrugged. “I simply made some pictures.”

But then he stated one thing that put his complete journey with the Sixers — and NBA center age — into perspective.

“We’re nonetheless a reasonably new workforce,” Harden stated. “We’re barely two months in. … We’re lastly settling into the collection. We discovered some nice issues that’ll work tonight.”

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