The Philadelphia 76ers came into their second-round opener against the Miami Heat on Monday with one realistic avenue to victory: James Harden had to be the best player on the floor. Perhaps he didn't need to score 30 or 40 points, but he needed to be the best player on the floor, creating offense for himself and teammates at a dominant clip.
That didn't come close to happening. Harden finished with 16 points on 13 shots in Philadelphia's 106-92 defeat in Game 1. He tallied as many turnovers (five) as assists. Two possessions, which actually accounted for 40 percent of Harden made buckets, tell a pretty accurate tale of the uphill battle scoring has become for Harden, particularly against an elite defense.
With just under three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Harden found himself isolated on Tyler Herro at the top. As Mark Jones like to say, he played with his food for a few dribbles before hitting a step-back 3 to cut Miami's lead to seven.
With Duncan Robinson out of the rotation for Game 1, Miami offered just two defenders to possibly target: Herro and Max Strus, and Herro is by far the weakest link. If Harden was ever going to get a favorable one-on-one matchup, it was here, against Herro, and he didn't even try to beat him off the dribble. He went to the step-back 3. He made it. Good for him. He's not going to make enough of those to beat, or even moderately threaten, a team as good as the Heat.
Understand, there's nuance to consider here. Take a look at Victor Oladipo showing himself near the elbow to Harden's left while his man, Matisse Thybulle, stands uncovered in the corner. This is the problem non-shooters pose. Oladipo is ready to pounce if Harden puts the ball on the floor to his strong hand, which would force a kickout pass to Thybulle for a low-percentage 3 against a dwindling shot clock.
The Heat just put Trae Young through this torture chamber of indecision, showing bodies everywhere he looked, deterring drives to the paint before they even happened, and Young, too, settled for 3-pointers all series. One could even argue, in Harden's case, this was the right shot to take, even with the weakest defensive link in Herro in front of him, given the floor layout.
But there is a seam there. It's not the first time Harden has seen a crowd in his vision. It wasn't that long ago that Harden would've cooked Herro, or at least drawn a foul, Oladipo's help be damned. The bottom line is all superstar scorers are seeing this defense nowadays. If you can't find a way into the paint against a weak defender, or at least establish some downhill leverage, just because there happens to be a second defender hovering in your general vicinity, then you better get real comfortable as a 3-point settler.
And that's the point. That's what Harden has become. A 3-point settler. On a given night, if his step-back 3 is going, he can still put up scoring numbers. But no longer is he a lock to pile up free throws (his baits aren't rewarded the same) and paint points. Those 3-pointers aren't gravy anymore; if Harden's not drawing fouls, they are his lifeblood. And he's never been a good enough shooter to adequately feed himself, or his team, on that kind of diet.
But what's the alternative? I heard on a broadcast the other night, I think it was Game 6 against the Raptors, that the Sixers are seeing the same "numbers" that Harden was putting up in Brooklyn in terms of his burst and speed. I'm not sure what numbers those are, but whatever they are, Philadelphia is fooling itself to put stock in them.
For starters, Brooklyn Harden wasn't exactly blowing by people. The Sixers convinced themselves that was more situational, lack of spacing and all that, but look at the spacing above. The Sixers sent out their only elite shooter, Seth Curry, in the deal to get Harden. Spacing wasn't exactly going to be optimal in Philly either.
The simple truth is Harden cannot consistently beat people off the dribble anymore. You saw above how he didn't even feel inclined to try against Herro, and now look at the next play, another bucket, which actually gave Philadelphia the lead with under 30 seconds to play in the first half:
That defender going chest to chest with Harden? That's Strus, the second-worst individual perimeter defender Miami has to offer. Again, kudos to Harden. That's a man's bucket. But that's how tough the sledding has become. If Harden doesn't have a head of steam in early offense or transition, he is just not beating guys, even defensively vulnerable guys, to the rim, or even into the paint.
Nobody is expecting the Sixers to have any chance in this series if Embiid doesn't return by Game 3 or 4. Even the old superstar Harden wouldn't be capable of pulling off that magic act. The only hope is for Harden to have one big performance, win just one game, and at least give Embiid a chance to return in Game 4 in a 2-1 series, if not in Game 3 in a 1-1 tie.
One big performance. One win. That's not asking the world if a guy is indeed a legit superstar. How many times have you watched Damian Lillard drag an otherwise unspectacular Blazers team to a playoff victory? Or Luka Doncic with the Mavericks? Kevin Durant nearly won an entire second-round series by himself against the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks last season. There was a time when Harden belonged in the same air as those guys.
Harden still has a chance to give Philadelphia that one big showing and prove he still has at least some of that player left in him, even if it can't be depended on as regularly. But if he doesn't, if he proves yet again that he simply is no longer the player that Daryl Morey wanted to believe he was when he traded Ben Simmons to get him, then it's not just about this series -- it's about the max contract Harden will be seeking this offseason.
The Sixers almost have to sign him unless they're prepared to have nothing to show for trading Simmons other than a second-round defeat, but man, if Harden lays a dud for the remainder of this series the way he did in Game 1, that is going to be one brutal decision to make.