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The best version of James Harden is not the Harden I fear the most

Could this be the series where Harden sheds his “playoff choker” label?

New York Knicks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In the first half of the first game of the season, the Celtics hosted the Sixers, and James Harden looked like his old self. He was doing all the James Harden-y things that made him one of the greatest offensive creators ever and also one of the most annoyingly unwatchable elite players ever. On that October 18th night, he did his trademark rapid between-the-legs dribble that lulls defenders to sleep, allowing him to drive into the paint and find an open shooter or draw a foul. He scored 22 points in the first half, shooting 56 percent from the field and making eight free throws.

If that version of Harden shows up in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics will win the series without much issue. Him as the one-one-one dynamo hasn’t historically led to playoff success, and that certainly won’t change in his advanced age. However, if Harden embraces a playmaker role, focusing on prioritizing Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey as the top scorers, and accepting that he’s the number three guy on this team, this series will be significantly more competitive than the NBA commentariat and the sports betting lines suggest.

Harden averaged 17.3 points and 8.3 assists on 42-percent three-point shooting in Philly’s sweep against Brooklyn. It’s fine on the surface, but on shots within five feet, he was a dreadful 5-of-20. There will probably be a quarter, a half, or even a game where we see throwback Harden, and it might have to be Game 1 if Embiid doesn’t play. But he isn’t capable of being a consistent 30-point scorer in a seven-game series.

And I believe that’s perfectly fine for the Sixers. In fact, Harden taking a back seat from a scoring perspective will yield the best version of Philly.

With Harden as the pass-first point guard who maintains his elite three-point shooting and gives you an occasional isolation bucket, the Sixers are a theoretical championship contender. The offense revolves around Embiid at the elbow and Maxey on the perimeter, with P.J. Tucker and Georges Niang as the veteran 3-and-D wings, Tobias Harris as the spot up shooter and sometimes 1-on-1 scorer, De’Anthony Melton as the athletic defensive guard, and Paul Reed and Jalen McDaniels as the young energy guys. The whole operation hinges on Harden thriving as a creator (and, of course, Embiid’s health, which is obviously the most important aspect for Philly).

Peak Harden was a magician with the ball, but his teammates were often relegated to human props. There are several reasons why his Houston teams never reached a Finals, but on the most basic level, the James Harden Experience — with his endless dribbling, the four other guys standing around watching, and him not doing anything when he didn’t have the ball — wasn’t conducive to championship culture. Players don’t feel empowered when they’re cogs in The Harden Show, and he couldn’t sustain his offensive wizardry in the more physical playoffs.

Harden has a well-documented history of underperforming in the playoffs. The last time he hit a clutch shot in a high stakes playoff game, he was a third-year player coming off the bench for Oklahoma City. He no-showed Game 6 against the Spurs in 2016, couldn’t take advantage of the Kevin Durant-less Warriors in 2019, then underperformed last year against Miami. There are few players in NBA history with Harden’s combination of multi-level scoring and elite passing. He’s one of the greatest regular season offensive players ever, which makes his playoff failures all the more jarring.

It’s possible that in his current role as the #3 guy, this is Harden’s opportunity to extinguish his playoff-choker label. Kyle Lowry was once considered a perpetual playoff underperformer, but in the 2019 NBA Finals, he had an excellent Game 6 and hit a clutch shot to seal the championship for Toronto. I can see a similar situation where Harden, without the burden of carrying a team, plays better in clutch situations.

Obviously, Harden can’t be an elite third option if Embiid’s LCL sprain prevents him from being a first option. Considering the Celtics went 3-1 against the Sixers in the regular season, and the likely MVP is hampered with a bum knee, Boston is the massive betting favorite.

But I’m a little scared about all this goodwill for a team that needed six games to beat the far inferior Atlanta Hawks. I fear that the Celtics fanbase has a little too much hubris about playing this talented-but-flawed Sixers team.

Harden is 33, looks ten pounds overweight, and no longer scores at the rim. He’s certainly not a #1 guy on a championship team, and probably not even a #2. And it’s precisely this version, the #3 guy behind Embiid and Maxey, who scares me the most.

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