James Harden Finds His Old Groove and Gets the Sixers Back on Track
PHILADELPHIA — James Harden of the 76ers was on his way to Wells Fargo Center on Sunday morning when he received a text message from his coach, Doc Rivers, that included a link to a gospel song, “You Know My Name” by Tasha Cobbs Leonard. It was the first time Rivers had sent Harden a song. His curiosity was piqued.
“I tell my homies, ‘Let’s play the song,’” Harden recalled, adding, “I let the whole song play, and I’m like, ‘All right, it’s got to be some kind of good juju in this song.’”
It was not some random text, of course. The basketball-watching universe had spent about 36 hours dissecting Harden’s poor play in the past two games of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Boston Celtics. The point of sending the song, Rivers said, was to remind Harden of his identity.
“James had to get himself back,” Rivers said.
Sure enough, with 19 seconds left in overtime Sunday afternoon, Harden sank a baseline 3-pointer that lifted the 76ers to a 116-115 victory and evened the best-of-seven series at 2-2. Harden was brilliant in Game 4, finishing with 42 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds and 4 steals.
“Quite frankly,” Harden said, “today was do or die.”
The 76ers have been a staple of the N.B.A. playoffs over the past six seasons, making five appearances in the conference semifinals. But those second-round series are where the road has tended to end for them. The last time they made the conference finals was in 2001, when Allen Iverson led them past the Milwaukee Bucks and into the N.B.A. finals. (The 76ers wound up losing in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers.)
The collective patience of Philadelphians seems to be wearing thin. Before Game 3, when N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver presented 76ers center Joel Embiid with his first Most Valuable Player Award, it was the fulfillment — on at least one level — of the franchise’s dust-covered, team-building blueprint known as the Process. Without getting into too many of the messy specifics, it involved the team playing abysmal basketball for several seasons while collecting a slew of top draft picks, one of which they used to select Embiid from the University of Kansas.
The challenge for the 76ers, of course, is that the Process was never about winning individual honors, though those are nice. The mandate now, on players like Embiid and Harden, but also on Rivers and Daryl Morey, the team’s president of basketball operations, is to vie for a championship. Embiid is 29. The 76ers traded for Harden last season. Before Game 4, Rivers was asked about his team’s level of urgency.
“Do I really need to answer that question?” he said, laughing. “You worked on that question for 48 hours, and that’s what you came up with? Whatever high is, I’m going to assume it’s high.”
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 through the hoop. It was a sign of more pyrotechnics to come.
None of it was easy. The 76ers gave up a 16-point third-quarter lead. Embiid finished with 34 points and 13 rebounds, but struggled from the field, shooting 11 of 26. And Jayson Tatum scored 22 of his 24 points after halftime, nearly leading the Celtics to a crushing comeback victory. Instead, Harden shouldered the load for the 76ers.
“I’m always a competitor,” he said. “I always want to win.”
During the regular season, Harden operated as a facilitator, averaging a league-best 10.7 assists per game. 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 formed a potent partnership with Embiid, the team’s centripetal force. Everything and everyone revolved around Embiid, for good reason, including Harden.
Game 1 of the 76ers’ series with the Celtics upset that balance in an odd and unexpected way. Embiid had sprained his right knee late in the first round and was sidelined, which meant that Harden apparently felt obliged to board his personal time machine and travel back to his gluttonous, ball-dominant days with the Rockets. He torched the Celtics, scoring 45 points while shooting 7 of 14 from 3-point range to lead the 76ers to a narrow win.
Embiid was back in the lineup for Games 2 and 3, and suddenly Harden seemed almost too conscious of his teammate’s presence, too passive and deferential. It hardly helped that Jaylen Brown affixed himself to Harden for long stretches. In those two losses, Harden shot a combined 5 of 28 from the field and 2 of 13 from 3-point range. Game 3 on Friday was particularly gruesome. Harden routinely passed up open shots. When he did launch a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter, he barely grazed the front of the rim. More than a few fans expressed their displeasure.
“I think with anyone, if you’re not making shots, you hesitate at times,” Rivers said.
For his part, Harden defended his shot selection, telling reporters: “I’m pretty good on basketball instincts. I know when to score. I know when to pass, so I’m pretty sure a lot of it was the right play.”
On Saturday, the 76ers had a lengthy film session at their practice facility. Rivers identified clips from Game 3 where he felt the 76ers needed to play with more pace, where the Celtics outhustled them for rebounds and loose balls, and where his players exhibited poor body language. The Celtics, who advanced to the N.B.A. finals last season and have renewed title aspirations of their own, carried themselves differently.
“I think the film yesterday said what we had to be,” Rivers said, “that they’re going to make a run, that we’re going to make a mistake. Things are not going to go well, and just keep playing.”
On Sunday, the 76ers made plenty of mistakes. Their offense stalled in the fourth quarter. They stopped moving and settled for tough shots. Harden, though, has playoff experience, and he said he was also inspired by the presence of John Hao, a student who survived the deadly shooting at Michigan State University in February. Harden and Hao connected over FaceTime.
Late in regulation, Harden’s runner over the Celtics’ Al Horford tied the game, 107-107. And in overtime, Harden came up with a key steal while defending Marcus Smart. He appeared to have a calming influence on his teammates.
He also found himself with the ball in his hands when it mattered most. He knew who he was.