James Harden Finds His Old Groove and Gets the Sixers Back on Track

PHILADELPHIA — James Harden of the 76ers was on his option to the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday morning when he obtained a textual content message from his coach, Doc Rivers, that included a hyperlink to a gospel tune, “You Know My Name” by Tasha Cobbs Leonard. . It was the first time Rivers had despatched Harden a tune. His curiosity was piqued.

“I inform my homies, ‘Let’s play the tune,’” Harden recalled, including, “I let the entire tune play, and I’m like, ‘All proper, it is bought to be some form of good juju on this tune. ‘”

It was not some random textual content, in fact. The basketball-watching universe had spent about 36 hours dissecting Harden’s poor play in the previous two video games of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference semifinal sequence with the Boston Celtics. The level of sending the tune, Rivers mentioned, was to remind Harden of his identification.

“James needed to get himself again,” Rivers mentioned.

Sure sufficient, with 19 seconds left in additional time Sunday afternoon, Harden sank a baseline 3-pointer that lifted the 76ers to a 116-115 victory and evened the best-of-seven sequence at 2-2. Harden was good in Game 4, ending with 42 factors, 9 assists, 8 rebounds and 4 steals.

“Quite frankly,” Harden mentioned, “at present was do or die.”

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 street 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 dropping in 5 video games to the Los Angeles Lakers.)

The collective endurance 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 success — on not less than 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 gathering a slew of prime draft picks, one among 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 profitable particular person honors, though these are good. The mandate now, on gamers like Embiid and Harden, but in addition on 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 actually need 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 way of the hoop. It was an indication of extra pyrotechnics to return.

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 subject, taking pictures 11 of 26. And Jayson Tatum scored 22 of his 24 factors after halftime, practically main the Celtics to a crushing comeback victory. Instead, Harden shouldered the load for the 76ers.

“I’m all the time a competitor,” he mentioned. “I all the time need to win.”

During the common season, Harden operated as a facilitator, averaging a league-best 10.7 assists per recreation. 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 pressure. Everything and everybody revolved round Embiid, for good purpose, together with Harden.

Game 1 of the 76ers’ sequence with the Celtics upset that stability in an odd and surprising approach. Embiid had sprained his proper knee late in the first spherical and was sidelined, 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 taking pictures 7 of 14 from 3-point vary to steer the 76ers to a slim win.

Embiid was again in the lineup for Games 2 and 3, and abruptly Harden appeared nearly 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 subject and 2 of 13 from 3-point vary. Game 3 on Friday was significantly grotesque. 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 just a few followers expressed their displeasure.

“I feel with anybody, in the event 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 numerous 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.

“I feel the movie yesterday mentioned what we needed to be,” Rivers mentioned, “that they are going to make a run, that we will make a mistake. Things will not be going to go properly, and simply hold taking part in.”

On Sunday, the 76ers made loads of errors. Their offense stalled in the fourth quarter. They stopped transferring and settled for powerful photographs. Harden, although, has playoff expertise, and he mentioned he was additionally impressed by the presence of John Hao, a pupil who survived the lethal taking pictures at Michigan State University in February. Harden and Hao related over FaceTime.

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

He additionally discovered himself with the ball in his palms when it mattered most. He knew who he was.

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