The tides have greatly shifted in the Philadelphia 76ers’ second-round series against the Miami Heat. After the Heat jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, the Sixers have come storming back to tie the series 2-2. The return of Joel Embiid, who missed the first two games with a concussion and orbital fracture, has brought new life into this Sixers team.
However, it was not Joel Embiid but James Harden who led the Sixers to a Game 4 victory. His 16 points in the fourth quarter helped the Sixers extend their lead and put an exclamation mark on his 31-point eruption. This was a performance the Sixers have been in search of since he arrived in Philadelphia and came at just the right time:
James Harden is the first player with
in Sixers playoff history. pic.twitter.com/v12l0NvMaW
— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 9, 2022
With the series tied and shifting back to Miami, let’s overreact to what we just saw in Philly.
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Sixers overreactions after James Harden’s throwback Game 4 performance vs. Heat
The old James Harden is back
There has been a growing concern this season that the James Harden the Sixers were hoping to see was no longer there. The 32-year-old has had some concerning trends since coming to Philadelphia. While still a good player, Harden has not looked like his MVP self for much of his time in Philly.
It has been unclear if it has been the lingering effects of his hamstring injury or age catching up to him, but Harden has not had the typical “pop” in his play. This has greatly affected his one-on-one ability. Harden is one of the greatest one-on-one scorers in NBA history due to his strong isolation skills. However, the inability to blow past a defender has made life much more difficult for the veteran.
The Beard seemed to have an improved burst in Game 4 and used this to set up his entire game. He also knocked down several vintage stepback triples in the clutch and wound up hitting six 3-pointers for the game, tying his season high back from November. If he can continue to possess this sharpness, the Sixers have to feel great about this version of James Harden as this series moves along.
Sixers have solved non-Embiid minutes
The biggest problem the Sixers have faced throughout the Joel Embiid era has been surviving when he is not on the court. No player can play all 48 minutes of a game, and the failure to implement a proper backup plan has sunk the Sixers in the playoffs on multiple occasions. This was most famously put on display in the Eastern Conference Semifinals series against the Raptors in 2019.
During this series, the Sixers were +90 with Joel Embiid on the court and -112 when he was off of it. The Sixers outscored the Raptors by 21 points per 100 possessions when Embiid was on the floor and were outscored by the Raptors by 46 points per 100 possessions when Embiid was on the bench. This drastic difference sunk the team, and they ultimately were sent home on the heartbreaking Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater.
While the backup center oftentimes catches the criticism for this, it has not been the only problem. The Sixers’ offense is built around Joel Embiid and someone else must step up as the focal point with him off the court. James Harden looks like he may finally be ready to fill this role. The 16 points Harden scored in the fourth quarter are his second-biggest scoring output in a quarter in his 143 playoff appearances.
Harden’s ability to take over was seen at the start of the fourth quarter. With Joel Embiid on the bench and the Sixers still holding the lead, this was an important moment in the game. In the 4:49 Embiid was on the bench, the Sixers extended their lead from 89-85 to 101-89. Harden was the featured piece the Sixers needed and provided the production the team craved.
Joel Embiid has found his running mate
The Sixers attempted to make the Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons duo work for quite some time. While there were several attempts at adding a third piece to connect them, the fact of the matter is they did not prove to be on-court complements. Joel Embiid’s post dominance paired with Simmons’ need for spacing was never the recipe for success the Sixers hoped for, at least come playoff time.
This is far from the case with James Harden. The former league MVP is a near-perfect pairing with Embiid’s style of play given his high-IQ passing and 3-point ability. The Sixers saw the potential of the duo in their first few games together before Harden began to struggle. The recent signs of life in his game may be indicating he is peaking at the right time:
Harden and Embiid are the most efficient pick and roll duo in the last 4 seasons
(via the Void/@KevinOConnorNBA ) pic.twitter.com/BJ7UOphOlM
— Karan (@karanjn2) May 6, 2022
In Game 4, Harden filled his role perfectly in the Sixers’ offense. He created valuable looks for teammates throughout and capitalized on several end-of-shot-clock opportunities. The Sixers are certainly hoping this version of James Harden sticks around, because at his best he is an ideal running mate for Joel Embiid. The duo makes for some scary hours when clicking on all cylinders.