Tobias Harris would usually have more to say, but he was trying to take it easy on his windpipe after absorbing an inadvertent Bam Adebayo elbow to the neck in the second half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 116-108 win against the Miami Heat in Sunday’s Game 4 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Harris just got to the heart of the matter when asked about James Harden’s 31-point night, including 16 of the Sixers’ 27 points in the decisive fourth quarter.
“What we need him to do on a nightly basis is what he does,” Harris said in a raspy voice. “Just be solid for us and pick up on the defense of how they’re playing him.”
This is the new vision for James Harden.
He doesn’t need to reprise his 2018 MVP form for the Sixers to win.
He doesn’t need to fill up the box score or hit game-ending clutch shots. He doesn’t even need to take 20 shots, which used to be a low number for him.
Harden took just 18 shots in Game 4, but it was plenty because he scored or assisted on 54 of the 98 points (55%) the Sixers scored while he was on the court.
This version of James Harden, the 32-year-old one the Sixers traded for in February with the idea of forging a long-term partnership, just needs to be solid and organize the team’s offense based on how the defense is playing him.
Joel Embiid (24 points, 11 rebounds) can do the rest. Harris (13 points, four assists) and Tyrese Maxey (18 points, four assists) can fill in the scoring and playmaking gaps. Danny Green can space the floor (11 points on 3-for-4 shooting from 3).
But Harden has to be the quarterback.
“He does a great job of evaluating the game,” Harris said. “Of where he can make plays, where he can take his shots. Tonight he got going. You could see the confidence in him of getting downhill first, and then the 3-ball opened it up for him.
“He sees so many defensive coverages out there. A lot of times they zone up the court as well, so sometimes it’s tough for him to be extremely aggressive on the offensive end. But when he’s in a groove like [Sunday night], we just get him the ball and keep it going.”
The Heat have pressured Harden throughout this series by denying him space to operate, especially when Embiid is not on the court.
In the first two games, which Embiid missed with a concussion and a broken orbital bone, Miami swarmed Harden with multiple defenders or threw a zone at him to muck up the Sixers’ offense.
According to Second Spectrum, the average closest defender to Harden in Game 1 was 3.7 feet. In Game 2 it was down to 3.1 feet, the closest in any game he has played in the past three seasons.
In Game 3, when Embiid returned to the lineup, the difference was even more pronounced. With Embiid on the court Miami gave Harden 3.7 feet, but just 2.6 feet when Embiid was off it.
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Taking space away from Harden is like depriving a fire of oxygen. Former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and past-and-present general manager Daryl Morey tried to build an empire in Houston around the radical, unabashed creation of space for Harden — and nearly succeeded but for the dynastic Golden State Warriors of the same era and Chris Paul’s injured hamstring.
Morey, now Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations, had much the same vision for the Sixers when he started trying to trade for Harden essentially from the moment he took the job in the fall of 2020.
If he could create a roster to space the floor around Harden, but with Embiid as the all-world co-star, there was no telling what kind of offensive juggernaut they could become.
But the reality of Harden’s age and current abilities has been glaring in his short time in Philadelphia. Whether he has lost a step — or three — it’s clear he can’t defy time and space the same way he once did.
The Heat have seized on Harden’s inability to get by defenders as he used to throughout this series. But in Game 4, he flipped the script.
He started draining 3-pointers to draw defenders out further from the basket. He attacked the zone defenses and double-teams Miami threw at him. All of which created space, where there had been very little before.
According to Second Spectrum tracking data, Harden created 3.6 feet of separation with Embiid on the court Sunday and 5.1 feet with Embiid off the floor.
Four of the five shots Harden took with Embiid off the floor were 3-pointers, which is partly why he had so much space. He also hit six of the 10 3-pointers he took on the night, after struggling from behind the arc the first three games, shooting 21% from 3.
So some of this is just hitting shots as opposed to missing them. But for Harden, it’s always about space. When he has it — whether he creates the space or the team’s offensive system does — he can find his rhythm and control a game. When he doesn’t, he looks lost and frustrated.
Sunday was the version of Harden the Sixers have been waiting for, even if he still isn’t the Harden of old. Because when he’s reading the floor and regulating the game as he did in Game 4, the Sixers look like a team that can beat anyone.
“Since he’s gotten here he’s been adjusting based on what we need from him,” Embiid said. “Whether it’s playmaking or tonight — just going and getting a bucket based on how they were guarding everyone else. Making tough shots. He’s been doing that his whole career.”
Harden downplayed his contributions to Sunday’s win compared to the struggles he has had throughout the series.
“Nothing really changed,” Harden shrugged. “I just made some shots.”
But then he said something that put his whole journey with the Sixers — and NBA middle age — into perspective.
“We’re still a fairly new team,” Harden said. “We’re barely two months in. … We’re finally settling into the series. We found some great things that’ll work tonight.”