An Assertive James Harden Shows Up and Delivers for the Sixers

PHILADELPHIA — The 76ers had been at risk of shedding a grip on their season when James Harden squared up for a baseline 3-pointer late in time beyond regulation Sunday, and in that nanosecond earlier than he launched the shot, an anxious crowd at the Wells Fargo Center might solely wait. and watch.

It was an opportunity for redemption. Harden had been inscrutable by means of the first three video games of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference semifinal sequence with the Boston Celtics — assertive one sport, passive the subsequent (two). But he had been good in Game 4 on Sunday, and with 19 seconds left in time beyond regulation, he shot the ball one last time.

Harden’s 3-pointer lifted the 76ers to a 116-115 victory that evened the best-of-seven sequence at 2-2, and it was a becoming manner for Harden to shut out an all-time efficiency: 42 factors, 9 assists, 8 rebounds and 4 steals.

The 76ers have been a staple of the NBA playoffs over the previous six seasons, making 5 appearances in the convention semifinals. But these second-round sequence are the place the highway has tended to finish for them. The final time they made the convention finals was in 2001, when Allen Iverson led them previous the Milwaukee Bucks and into the NBA finals. (The 76ers wound up shedding in 5 video games to the Los Angeles Lakers.)

The collective persistence of Philadelphians appears to be sporting skinny. Before Game 3, when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver offered 76ers heart Joel Embiid along with his first Most Valuable Player Award, it was the achievement — on at the least one stage — of the franchise’s dust-covered, team-building blueprint generally known as the Process. Without entering into too lots of the messy specifics, it concerned the crew taking part in abysmal basketball for a number of seasons whereas accumulating a slew of high draft picks, considered one of which they used to pick out Embiid from the University of Kansas.

The problem for the 76ers, in fact, is that the course of was by no means about successful particular person honors, though these are good. The mandate now, on gamers like Embiid and Harden, but additionally on Coach Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey, the crew’s president of basketball operations, is to vie for a championship. Embiid is 29. The 76ers traded for Harden final season. Before Game 4, Rivers was requested about his crew’s stage of urgency.

“Do I really want to reply that query?” he mentioned, laughing. “You labored on that query for 48 hours, and that is what you got here up with? Whatever excessive is, I’m going to imagine it is excessive.”

Harden delivered. Early in the first quarter, he made a beeline to the basket and scored on a runner, playfully bopping the ball off his head after it fell by means of the hoop. It was an indication of extra pyrotechnics to come back.

None of it was straightforward. The 76ers gave up a 16-point third-quarter lead. Embiid completed with 34 factors and 13 rebounds, however struggled from the area, capturing 11 of 26. And Jayson Tatum scored 22 of his 24 factors after halftime, practically main the Celtics to a crushing comeback. Instead, Harden shouldered the load for the 76ers.

During the common season, Harden operated as a facilitator, averaging a league-best 10.7 assists a sport. He was neither the scoring nor the 3-point-shooting machine that he was in a former basketball life with the Houston Rockets. Instead, he fashioned a potent partnership with Embiid, the crew’s centripetal power. Everything and everybody revolved round Embiid, for good motive, together with Harden.

Game 1 of the 76ers’ sequence with the Celtics upset that stability in an odd and sudden manner. Embiid was sidelined with a sprained proper knee, which meant that Harden apparently felt obliged to board his private time machine and journey again to his gluttonous, ball-dominant days with the Rockets. He torched the Celtics, scoring 45 factors whereas capturing 7 of 14 from 3-point vary to guide the 76ers to a slim win.

Embiid was again in the lineup for Games 2 and 3, and all of a sudden Harden appeared virtually too aware of his teammate’s presence, too passive and deferential. It hardly helped that Jaylen Brown affixed himself to Harden for lengthy stretches. In these two losses, Harden shot a mixed 5 of 28 from the area. Game 3 on Friday was notably ugly. Harden routinely handed up open photographs. When he launched a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter, he barely grazed the entrance of the rim. More than a number of followers expressed their displeasure.

“I believe with anybody, in case you’re not making photographs, you hesitate at instances,” Rivers mentioned.

For his half, Harden defended his shot choice, telling reporters: “I’m fairly good on basketball instincts. I do know when to attain. I do know when to go, so I’m fairly positive loads of it was the proper play.”

On Saturday, the 76ers had a prolonged movie session at their apply facility. Rivers recognized clips from Game 3 the place he felt the 76ers wanted to play with extra tempo, the place the Celtics outhustled them for rebounds and free balls, and the place his gamers exhibited poor physique language. The Celtics, who superior to the NBA finals final season and have renewed title aspirations of their very own, carried themselves in another way.

“And I do know you could have coaches who say this, however every spherical you develop,” Rivers mentioned. “Boston is previous that already. They’ve gone by means of every spherical, so that they’ve gone by means of these frustrations already the place it does not faze them once they make errors. We’re not there, and that is the place we’re going.”

On Sunday, the 76ers made loads of errors. Their offense stalled in the fourth quarter. They stopped shifting and settled for robust photographs. Harden, although, has playoff expertise, and he used all of it.

Late in regulation, his runner over the Celtics’ Al Horford tied the sport, 107-107. And in time beyond regulation, Harden got here up with a key steal whereas defending Marcus Smart. He appeared to have a chilled affect on his teammates.

He additionally discovered himself with the ball in his arms when it mattered most. He knew what to do with it.

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