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May 08, 2022

Instant observations: James Harden sticks dagger in Heat to win Game 4

James Harden delivered a virtuoso performance in Philadelphia's Game 4 win over the Heat, pushing the Sixers to a 116-108 victory with a 31-point, seven-rebound, nine-assist game on Sunday night. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• A lot has been made about Harden's regression from routine 30-point scorer to whatever he tends to be these days, but even when he can't go deep in the scoring bag, that guy can make passes that few players in the league even think to make. He's got every last one in the bag, from bounce passes through traffic to crosscourt skip passes to the simple drop-off, each leading to buckets even if the aesthetics and difficulty have a wide range.

For the second consecutive game, Harden had to fight through foul trouble, picking up two early ones that landed him on the bench for a decent chunk of the first half. But when he was on the floor with Joel Embiid during the stretch run of the second quarter, the Sixers looked as good as they have at any point in this series, in part because Harden was pushing the tempo and blending attacking and playmaking at an expert level. After Embiid did the carrying in the open period, it was Harden's time to shine in that second quarter, No. 1 picking up 13 points of his own with a bunch of drives to the hoop and a signature stepback three, dotting up a helpless Jimmy Butler from the right wing.

That would prove to be a harbinger of things to come. 

For the first 2/3 or so of this game, Harden's tempo was excellent, Philly's lead guard not wasting any time attacking a feeble defender on a switch. Even when it was somebody like PJ Tucker, Harden followed Philadelphia's philosophy of trying to hit first, forcing Tucker to make the first move or first reach in order to try to stop him. That made a world of difference for Harden the scorer, putting the Heat in some no-win situations.

To Harden's tremendous credit, this game was hanging in the balance when Embiid sat for the opening stretch of the fourth quarter, only for Harden to lead the Sixers on a monstrous 8-0 run to open the period. When he canned a three in transition to push the lead to 12 points with nine and change to play, Wells Fargo Center erupted. Somewhere in the building, Daryl Morey had to be looking at the floor thinking, "THAT'S why I went and got that guy." That feeling only grew and grew as the game got tight down the stretch, the rest of the Sixers struggling to find an edge or hit shots. All by himself, Harden willed the Sixers across the finish line on offense, hitting clutch three after clutch three to end up with the sort of line he used to make look easy back in the day.

Even when the shots have not gone down, I tend to think Harden's contributions to the Sixers have actually been underrated in these playoffs, and across most of his time here. By simply drawing attention away from Philadelphia's other players, he allows guys like Tyrese Maxey a bit of room to operate they wouldn't have otherwise, and he's the quickest guy to fire a pass to the open guy when a gap opens up in the defense. With Embiid out there raising their floor and ceiling, Harden's value becomes a lot more apparent.

But on this sort of night, you start to wonder if maybe the idea of a championship ceiling isn't as far-fetched as it seemed when they were struggling to put away the Raptors. If they can get this version of Harden in four games of a series, they have a chance to hang with anybody. 

• In Friday night's Game 3, it was enough for Embiid to simply be out on the floor and participating, drawing attention on offense and providing the majority of his value on defense. That was not going to cut it in Game 4 against Miami, and the Sixers made sure to get him rolling right out the chute. 

One of Philadelphia's great offensive failures in Game 3 was not punishing Miami for switching ball screens involving Embiid, failing to get him the ball with guys like Max Strus "guarding" him in the post. They changed that almost immediately in Game 4, with Embiid sealing smaller defenders on the block for a couple of quick buckets in the opening minutes. The Heat tried their hardest to front him in the post, making James Harden and other Sixers players throw tough, lobbed entries into the painted area if they wanted to get it to the big man. But more often than not, the Sixers got the ball where they wanted it to go: into the hands of No. 21.

The Heat were successful at slowing him down after that — Embiid would go scoreless in the second quarter, Miami throwing multiple guys at him even when he was off-ball to prevent passes from getting to him in the first place. Credit to the Sixers for using that attention against Miami, their shooters sliding around the floor or cutting into space behind the big man.

I'm not sure anything stood out more in this game, though, than Embiid's ability to hold his own on switches and navigate the paint on defense. He put Victor Oladipo in jail during one first half possession, earning a raucous ovation from the home crowd after a kicked ball brought the play to a standstill:

The little things elsewhere loomed large as well. There was Embiid flashing toward a driving Oladipo on one side of the floor, moving back toward Adebayo at just the right time to cause Oladipo's brain to short circuit, leading to a travel and a change of possession. There was Embiid showing high against Tyler Herro coming off of a ball screen, forcing a wild cross court pass that went off of PJ Tucker's hands and into the crowd. Even with Butler having another strong night, Miami's team construction is part of why I was bullish on the Miami matchup if Embiid had been fully healthy coming into the series.

Shooting variance has played a part in where we stand through four games, but Embiid's return has absolutely changed the course of this series. This is now a series that is there to be won for Philadelphia. 

• Time and time again, we've discussed Danny Green's importance to the team this season, the veteran offering a rare dose of two-way play amongst a lot of one-way guys on this team. When he started to come alive in the dying days of the regular season, it looked like a potential boost for Philly coming into the playoffs. Now, it's hard to imagine them being able to get by without him.

After struggling mightily during the first two games of the series, Green managed to use some Netflix binging and quality time at home to forget what happened in Miami. He was locked in to start this one yet again, the highlight of his night a heat check three in the first half that nearly turned into a four-point play after he cashed out and drew the foul. "DANNY! DANNY!" chants echoed throughout Wells Fargo Center, a first from what I can remember of his time here.

How do you bottle this up and bring it to Miami? The Sixers are going to have to try to figure that out.

• Maxey did not take as much time to get rolling in this game as he did in Game 3, and the Sixers were better for it. There was far less hesitation from Maxey when he had chances to attack Miami, the young gun hoisting from deep early and often in this one.

The beauty of Maxey's second-half surges is that even if he only makes a couple of plays, the building begins roaring and swaying around him, delighted to see the young man thriving. The on-court value of his made shots doesn't change, but it does change the overall calculus slightly when you know just one nice Maxey highlight is going to lead to the building nearly caving in on itself.

• I was a skeptic of the Sixers being able to use zone defense effectively in the playoffs, mostly because they had some ghastly stretches playing it in the regular season, but it has been an important piece of their arsenal here in the Miami series. It definitely helps that the Heat have simply missed open threes, though it does feel like the Sixers have been able to force a decent amount of threes from guys and spots they want them from. 

• Tobias Harris didn't take or make a ton of shots, but it felt like most of them came during big moments where the game could have swung in the other direction. 

• Georges Niang ripping a defensive rebound away from Adebayo qualifies as a play of the game candidate when you consider their respective skills, tools, and body types. 

The Bad

• Transition defense is traditionally thought of your ability to get back on a turnover or a stop for the other team. Kyle Lowry has made a career out of punishing teams after they score, making hit-ahead passes and punishing weaknesses in early offense on the ensuing possession, and that was something the Sixers were woefully unprepared for early in this one. 

With due respect to Paul Reed, who I think has been about as good as could be expected in a series of this caliber (and held his own in the fourth!), he is in a tough spot trying to deal with Adebayo at any point in the shot clock, let alone with the team scrambling to get back and get set. With Adebayo struggling to get much of anything going with Embiid on the floor, he was on an absolute tear whenever Reed was out there, even when Reed was put in no-win spots by his perimeter-based teammates.

• The Sixers are going to have to figure out a better plan against Jimmy Butler, because he has gone absolutely nuclear over the last two games in Philadelphia. To an extent, perhaps that's a version of Butler they're willing to live with — if they take away his options as a playmaker and force Butler to beat them as a scorer, they're limiting part of what makes him a great player.

Even if that's the case, Butler is carving them up every which way. He's preying on the Sixers whenever they lose sight of him off-ball, bursting into space as a cutter. He's proving to be difficult for anybody on Philadelphia's roster to deal with from 15 feet and in, pump faking and pump faking and pump faking until he can get his defender to lean one direction or another. Even Embiid fell victim to that strategy at times on Sunday night — instead of simply standing straight up and daring Butler to shoot over his outstretched arms, Embiid eventually got called for a flagrant when his block attempt hit Butler in the head, leading to a pair of free-throws and a three on the ensuing extra possession. If Butler makes threes on top of everything else he can do to hurt you, there's not much you can do to slow him down.

These performances, if Butler can sustain this pace, are going to mean a lot more when the Heat can get reasonably good shooting efforts from their role players. Like the Sixers after the first two games, they can feel relatively calm with the knowledge that simply making jumpers will solve their "issues," and you can expect their role players to pick it back up when they're at home. Embiid needing to spend a huge chunk of this game outright guarding Butler puts him in a tough spot in any game, let alone his second game back from a concussion and orbital fracture. 

(It's also going to be tough to guard Butler if he gets away with walking while Embiid guards him, but that's another story.)

• I'm not sure why various Sixers defenders keep forgetting Herro is a good offensive player that needs to be accounted for. Credit to him for keeping them off-balance with constant movement, but Herro walking into uncontested threes is not a thing that should happen too often. 

The Ugly

• I don't think either team is going to leave the arena thrilled with the officiating performance. The Scott Foster special, baby. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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