May 08, 2023
James Harden giveth and James Harden taketh away. Harden, or "Uno" as Twitter has taken to calling him this series, has given the Sixers everything and nothing against Boston, turning in two of the best playoffs games I've ever seen from a Sixer as well as two absolute clunkers that defy reality for a future Hall of Famer of Harden's caliber.
Nevertheless, the Sixers are tied 2-2 against the Celtics heading into a decisive Game 5 on Tuesday night, a spot I didn't expect them at all to be in and I'm certainly not alone there. If Harden plays well, even taking on the lead dog Batman role more so than MVP Joel Embiid, the Sixers win. If he doesn't, sinking to the lows he's become infamous for in his postseason career, it gets ugly. It's simple stuff!
Every week here on PhillyVoice, I pick a sports figure who "won the week" in the city's sports scene. Going into Sunday with the Phillies on the verge of being swept for the second time this week and the Sixers staring down a 3-1 hole to Boston, I wondered if I'd even write this article, perhaps skipping it entirely because of how barren the landscape was. Depending on how Game 4 bounced for the Sixers, Harden could've either "won" or "lost" this week, but with yet another 40-point effort on Sunday, I'm giving Uno the nod here.
Let's look at Harden's stat lines for this series thus far...
• Game 1: 45 points (17/30 FGA, 7/14 3PA), 4-point win
• Game 2: 12 points (2/14 FGA, 0/6 3PA), 34-point loss
• Game 3: 16 points (3/14 FGA, 2/7 3PA), 12-point loss
• Game 4: 42 points (16/23 FGA, 6/9 3PA), 1-point win
How is that the same guy?
After a spirited run to the 2012 NBA Finals with the Thunder, Harden's playoff woes were on full display in his days in Houston. During his Rockets tenure, Houston lost in the Western Conference Semifinals or Finals five different times, plus three other first-round flameouts.
I wrote about his numbers from his incredible Game 1 performance last week. No Sixer has had a night like that in the postseason other than Allen Iverson. The same is true for that Game 4 flamethrower. The only Sixers to drop at least 42 points and make at least six threes in a playoff game? Harden in Game 4, Harden in Game 1, and Iverson back in Game 5 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals against Toronto (via Stahead).
Conversely, Harden was throwing up brick after brick in Games 2 and 3. Going 0-for-6 from deep while shooting 14 baskets and coming up with just 12 points? It's only the third time it's happened in team playoff history. The other painful games came from Andre Iguodala in Game 5 against the Bulls in the first round of the 2012 playoffs and Robert Covington in a first-round matchup with the Heat in 2018 (via Stahead). In his time as a starter, Harden's 14.3 shooting percentage in Game 2 was the third-worst mark in his postseason career.
As I said, if you asked a Sixers fan going into this series if they'd take a 2-2 split early that included not one, but two Harden 40-point outings, they'd take that in a heartbeat. It just feels so Sixers that those performances sandwiched two disaster classes.
With the way the NBA game slows down late in the postseason, perimeter scoring becomes more important than ever. Joel Embiid will obviously need to be the dominant two-way force he was in his MVP campaign if the Sixers are going to upset the Celtics, but Harden having an efficient evening as a scorer looks to be just as important for the health of this team, if not more so.
I thought it was completely unreasonable to have another 40-burger from Harden after what we all witnessed in Game 1. At 33 years old, maybe Harden's top level in the playoffs actually hasn't been fully unlocked yet. A big Game 5 win will go a long way to help rewrite the narrative around Harden's status as a clutch player.
In five games since returning from Tommy John surgery, Bryce Harper is hitting .368 with an on-base percentage of .455 and a slugger percentage of .579. He's scored six runs and launched his first home run of 2023 on Saturday night. The Phillies may be mired in mediocrity at the moment, but a surging Harper makes things a whole lot easier.
Who won the Week 2023 Tally:
Joel Embiid: 5
James Harden: 3
Howie Roseman: 1
Tobias Harris: 1
Bryson Stott: 1
Mac McClung: 1
Haason Reddick: 1
Kenny Gainwell: 1
DeVonta Smith: 1
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