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May 09, 2022

After vintage James Harden performance, Sixers insist they have higher ceiling to hit

Dire as Miami's shooting was for a lot of Game 4, this felt like a game Philadelphia was prepared to give away, the game there for the taking in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Joel Embiid had spent the entire third quarter on the floor, leaving it to everybody else to hold onto the rope while their defensive anchor and MVP had a seat.

In the minutes between that departure and Embiid's eventual return, the Sixers pushed their lead to double digits. And the guy at the center of it all, at the center of most of their success in the fourth quarter, was James Harden. Imagine that.

"That was the game right there. Joel did a really good job of just giving his all, especially the entire third quarter," Harden said Sunday. "We had three minutes to build that lead up to as many as we can and try to get it to double digits, and we did a really good job of that." 

"I thought the biggest part of the game was the beginning of the fourth quarter," Doc Rivers added. "Joel needed rest, that group came on the floor, we created fouls, we increased the lead, and when Joel came back in the game at seven and a half minutes, we were already in the penalty. That's huge."

Nearly every big moment for Philadelphia in Game 4 passed through Harden's hands at one point. When Tobias Harris hit a big three to push the lead to seven, it was Harden who instantly hit him in the corner when Gabe Vincent got wiped out by a screen. It was Harden who blew by Tyler Herro a few possessions later, drawing two free-throws in the process.

And it was Harden, in a sign of what was to come, who pulled up in Vincent's grill with the Heat gasping for air in transition, his teammates running with outstretched arms and nodding their heads as the roof came off of the Wells Fargo Center. 

He would add three more threes before the fourth quarter was over, each more devastating than the last. His final made jumper was perhaps the most improbable of them all, Harden using a slight juggle to hold onto the ball through contact beyond the arc. By that point, he was so in the zone he might as well have been playing in an empty gym on City Line Avenue, miles and miles away from the pandemonium of a second-round standoff. 

"Just took what the defense gave me," Harden would say after the game. "Same shots, just made some. Nothing really changed, man. I just made some shots. I mean obviously, that's a game-changer, but being aggressive, and that group that started the fourth quarter did a really good job of pushing the lead up and doing what we were supposed to do."

If Harden won't take more credit, we can simply give it to him. The step-backs drove his success, certainly, but Harden also found the corner with Bam Adebayo guarding him on a switch on one critical fourth-quarter possession, keeping Miami's all-world defender on his hip and expertly using the rim to shield his layup attempt.

Across the last two games, Harden has been a more consistent attacker of the rim, beating weak perimeter defense with pace and purpose. The way he sees it, that fact and Philadelphia's change in fortune isn't hard to figure, and he laughed at a question pondering what allowed them to have confidence as a group down 2-0. All he had to do was look to the giant Cameroonian sitting to his right. 

"That was the key, he's the MVP of the league," Harden said. "Credit to our guys, we had the right mindset going into both games, it's just difficult without Jo to win if you don't make shots...we still had that confidence gong into Game 3 knowing we could beat these guys, and obviously bringing Joel back was the X-factor."

Game 4 was a more efficient outing for Embiid and another example among many this season of how powerful it is to simply have him on the floor. He scored 15 first-quarter points, beginning with a series of duck-ins against Heat switches, and Miami fought for the rest of the game to prevent him from getting touches in the first place.

Miami did well enough at it to keep the game close, but it required a level of play-to-play sharpness and effort that stretched them out over 48 minutes. And with the game still in jeopardy with just under two minutes to play, it was Jimmy Butler selling out toward Embiid that allowed Tobias Harris to waltz in for an emphatic slam and a Danny Green high five to boot.

Ever the critic, Embiid looked inward after the game, lamenting the 40-ball they allowed Jimmy Butler to put up on their floor. Butler's success was hard to pin on one guys or even one defensive style, but the Sixers asked Embiid to spend a lot of time on him in the second half, the big man vowing to do better the next time out.

"That was on me, the second half I wasn't as dominant defensively as I was in the first," Embiid said. "We're making it too easy for him. You look at the way they guard me or they guard James, it's hard for me to catch the ball. They're making sure I don't catch the ball. And when [James] is driving, having the ball at the top, he's seeing a bunch of bodies. We got to do a better job of showing a crowd so he doesn't get it as easy as he's been able to."

"I don't think we've played our best basketball, tonight we had way too many turnovers," Embiid said. "And we missed a bunch of wide-open shots. We had a couple possessions offensively that didn't go our way, and then defensively at times, especially at the end of the third quarter, we weren't together. We've got a lot of adjustments and room to grow, so we got to learn from it. But we are far from playing our best basketball, so that's the encouraging thing."

One could argue that the encouraging thing is much simpler — Harden still having this level of performance in him is arguably the biggest development of the playoffs. This was not a stat-compiling effort against a mediocre team, but a game-winning, team-driving effort in what was essentially a must-win game for Philadelphia. The game was there for someone to seize it, and the man with the battered and bruised playoff rep is the man who stood tallest when it counted. 

Before this outburst, Harden's playoff run with Philadelphia had probably been undervalued.  His ability to consistently create good looks for Sixers players has not gotten as much play as his fall from soaring highs as a scorer, Harden scraping by as an attacker on a lot of nights. Through the first two games of the series, it was tough to work around the Harden the walls of Miami defenders every time he tried to attack, forcing him to try to find his shooters all over the floor.

It is a 2-2 series where both teams can credibly feel that they might not have to do much of anything to change what they're doing. Poor shooting has doomed the loser in every game, and the series winner may very well come down to one team breaking the trend of the home team faring better on offense.

But those game-to-game swings are why you pay hundreds of millions of dollars to star players, building a foundation that will survive any storm. In Embiid, they have their rock. Even if Harden can't reach back and score a casual 30 the way he once could, there has been little internal questioning of his importance to the mission. Just ask the big guy. 

"That's the reason why he's here," Embiid said, reliving the shotmaking experience of the final 12 minutes. "That's the reason why we brought him."

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