James Harden is going into his first postseason with the Philadelphia 76ers at, or at least near, the edge of the superstar cliff. Once you go over that edge, it can be a fast fall. Many would argue Harden has already tipped, that he's lost his burst and is no longer a top-tier scorer. Perhaps that's true.
But there's always been more to Harden's game than scoring. He's an all-time great passer, and I don't say that lightly. In the Sixers' blowout Game 1 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Saturday, Harden dished out 14 assists and created enough open shots for his teammates for that number to have exceeded 20.
Did he blow past people all the way to the rim? No. But he got feet in the paint, he won angles, and his vision and ability to deliver pinpoint dimes off the dribble, regardless of his diminished separation, hasn't faded one bit. Tyrese Maxey's 38 points and Tobias Harris' 26 won the box score, but who, whether directly or indirectly got them a lot of those looks? Harden is still defended like a superstar. He still draws attention.
Harden scored 22 points of his own, and when he has a running start in early offense he still looks plenty explosive to the rim and through contact; it's the stationary dribbling exhibitions that no longer lead to consistent blow-bys. Encouragingly, he made four of his seven 3-pointers; he is increasingly dependent on his step-back 3s going down as he no longer seems like the guy who is going to get to the rim or the free-throw line at will. Harden finished just two of his 10 shots inside the arc, but here's the number that really matters: One turnover.
The Raptors led the league in defensive turnover rate this season. This is what they do: turn you over and score in transition, where they put up 22.5 points per game in the regular season, the fifth-highest mark in the league. They have a stable of long, athletic guys who deploy something of an organized chaos system, frantic and improvisational enough to get their opponents off balance and sped up, and the next thing you know passes are being tipped or stolen and the Raptors are racing the other way.
But Harden never allowed that to happen.
"He was great. I thought he controlled the game," Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of Harden. "I thought when he needed to go in there and knock people over, he did. When he needed to step back and make a 3, he did. ... He had a really efficient night and I thought he really controlled the offense too. He got the ball where he wanted it to go. He'd call a set, they'd get it to where they wanted it and I thought he ran the show really well tonight."
There's a case to be made that this was about as good as the Sixers can play, collectively, and as bad as the Raptors can play. It's not sustainable for Maxey and Harris to combine for 64 points and Matisse Thybulle can't play in Toronto because he's not double vaccinated. But there's a lot of meat on the bone for Joel Embiid, who only scored 19 points on 5-of-15 shooting, and now Scottie Barnes might be out for the Raptors with a sprained ankle.
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So, yeah, this series has started about as promising as possible for Sixers, but for Harden, there's still a lot left to prove. Prevailing wisdom says the Sixers will sign him to a max extension this offseason no matter what; if they don't, and they don't win a title this season, they will have traded Ben Simmons and Seth Curry for nothing.
But if Harden were to fall way over that cliff this postseason, that would be a hard pill to swallow for Daryl Morey and the Sixers to sign up for four more years at over $200 million. Harden said he's going into this season with no pressure, and in a sense that's true. He's already a Hall of Famer. He's already embarrassingly rich and is going to get another big contract one way or another. All he has left on his to-do list is to win a title. If it happens, cool. If it doesn't, his career isn't exactly going to have been a bust.
With the way the season ended for Harden, nobody figured the Sixers for a legit title contender. Six of our eight writers predicted they wouldn't get past Toronto in the first round. One game isn't nearly enough to start rethinking the Sixers' title aspirations or even count out Toronto. This was just a good start for Harden and the Sixers. Nothing more, nothing less. We'll see if they can back it up in Game 2.