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May 02, 2023

Vintage James Harden gives Sixers chance to steal series from Boston

With an array of step-back threes and buckets at the rim, James Harden delivered his greatest performance as a Sixers in their Game 1 in Boston.

In the mind and words of James Harden, the existence of 'old James Harden' is a misunderstanding of his world and his role for the Sixers. In the hours after he packed the Celtics up and handed them a Game 1 defeat, dropping 45 points of fury on the heads of Boston's finest, Harden revisited a theme that has become his calling card this season. This wasn't an outlier, this wasn't a return to his roots, but simply what his team needed from him in a giant spot to open round two.

"I don't need to make a statement," Harden said Monday. "What happens internally with the 76ers organization, coaches, my teammates, what they expect me to do all throughout the course of the year, was to be a facilitator and get Joel the basketball, and score when necessary. Joel wasn't here tonight, and we knew that going into the series, and now it's like alright, open up the floor, James you go be aggressive. And tonight I was aggressive."

"It's not that I'm not capable of doing it, it's just that this is my role for the team. You want me to do this? Tonight, I can do that as well, and I don't think a lot of players can do that."

He is right that this is not the sort of thing many players can do, and yet Harden speaks of this change as a simple mentality switch. Sure, just go be aggressive. Go from the league's regular-season leader in assists to an all-time pull-up threat as if you are toggling settings on a hair drier, sliding the button one notch up. This sort of belief that can only exist in a player good enough to be named one of the NBA's 75 best players ever. The suggestion is that . 

Critically, this sort of belief is what they have often lacked in the No. 2 alongside Joel Embiid, a sentiment that applies even to Harden, who faded into obscurity in Philly's meek Game 6 performance against Miami last season. If faith in Philadelphia was low coming into this series, it was because many doubted Harden's ability to find this gear to make up for Embiid.

That group appeared to include the Boston Celtics on Monday night. Faced with the task of guarding a smaller, sleeker Sixers team, the Celtics opted mostly to drop their bigs in pick-and-rolls, inviting Harden to beat them with pull-up shooting if he was able to. It was a somewhat strange gambit, given Harden's great year shooting the basketball, but an indication that they were more comfortable living with Harden the shooter than Harden the passer.

In a word, whoops.

Sixers fans have been on the other side of this phenomenon quite a few times — in the early days of the Joel Embiid era, it felt as though you could pick a random scoring guard every night and wait for him to build an early head of steam against Philadelphia as they sat back. Watching a range of players from Kemba Walker to Spencer Dinwiddie to T.J. Warren to Bradley Beal to...well, you get the point, was a miserable experience for most Sixers fans. And this was compounded by the Sixers never really having the guy who could do the same to the opponent, lighting them on fire for disrespecting their pull-up ability.

The Celtics would certainly try different things to stop him. Doubling Harden and forcing the ball out of his hands was the approach many teams took with him in his prime, and the Celtics tried some of that out against Harden in Game 1. As teams learned the hard way at his peak — and in fairness, during his short stint with Philly at the end of last season — Harden's vision is simply too good for that to be a viable strategy.

"Some of them are reads, some of them are [Joe Mazulla's] calling. I think everybody, we're all at fault because that's something that the players do as well. It's no fingers [pointed] at all," Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon said after the game.

While much of Harden's money was made beyond the three-point line, inside-the-arc scoring was by far the bigger surprise for No. 1. Harden's midrange jumper, which flashed heavily at the beginning of the year and has been tucked away since, came roaring back in Game 1, as Harden used the strength advantage he used to leverage at the rim to create noteworthy separation for his in-between game. Harden also had some noteworthy finishes at the hoop, explosions toward the basket that he hadn't looked capable of in the month or two prior.

The time off after Round 1 seemed to help Harden on multiple fronts. For one, he had more rest to get right and get healthy during a time of year when players typically only have a day or two to reset. But the Sixers also worked on small tactical tweaks to free up their ballhandlers. Rivers specifically pointed to their high step-up screens, which the Sixers pushed as far out as the halfcourt logo.

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"We felt like if we can get them going downhill instead of waiting until you get into the halfcourt and setting them at the free-throw line, we literally were setting our pick at halfcourt. The floor is wide," Rivers said Monday. "I thought the preparation helped. I thought that he had just the perfect mindset tonight. He really did. I'm so happy for him, because it just tells you what he can do on given nights, and he can be your point guard on given nights, it just speaks, it's amazing. The guy is a Hall of Famer, and all you hear is the other stuff about him."

Of all people, Harden had the most reasons to gloat following his Game 1 masterclass, but he was more subdued than perhaps anybody on Philadelphia's roster. At the final horn, Harden was heard telling his teammates to keep things in perspective following the win, reminding them it was only one game and 1/4 of what they came into this series to do. It was a message he hammered again at the podium, shrugging off the suggestion that they needed this win to find belief within their group.

"We're here to win. Even after this game, I told the guys don't get too happy. We're even-keeled," Harden said. "We're coming in here to get Game 2 as well, that's the mindset we have as a unit. Whether Jo comes back or not, we're ready to go. Obviously, he's huge, he's everything for this team, but whoever's on the floor, let's go win the game. That's what we did tonight."

They did that mostly thanks to Harden, whose job has been to flow like water wherever the Sixers have needed it. On Monday night, the bearded star reminded the public he is still capable of the occasional tidal wave.

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