James Harden’s sunsetting in the playoffs is a reliable annual trend. Similar to Punxsutawney Phil emerging as a sign spring has sprung, but with darker clouds in the forecast. For what feels like a decade, Harden has disappeared into his shell once the best-of-seven portion of the schedule begins. If this feels like déja vu, that’s because it is. You can connect a throughline from Harden’s no-show in the 2012 NBA Finals to his lobotomy at the hands of the Miami Heat in 2022.
If history is any indication, the assumption is that Harden will leave anyone rooting for him frustrated. The warning signs of Harden transforming into a playoff melanoma were present in the final weeks of the regular season after his explosion began to dip while he battled a sore Achilles. Whether it’s his washed Elvis fitness level, his physical ailment of the week, or just his accelerated aging, Harden is reliably unreliable once the postseason calendar tips off.
Where did it go wrong?
The Sixers can survive the sort of one-dimensional game Harden delivered against Brooklyn’s can’t-find-the-bottom-of-a-Net lineups. It won’t slide in a second-round matchup.
In Game 1, Harden couldn’t finish inside, drilling only 1-for-8 on 2-pointers and scoring 21 points on 23 shots.
“I couldn’t make a layup,” Harden confessed afterward.
That’s a worrisome sign for a virtuoso who had a preternatural ability to make defenses focused on him as the primary option, look like turnstiles.
In Game 2, Harden ran up the price of the brick, misfiring on 10 of his 13 attempts from the field, scoring only eight points. Fortunately, Philadelphia’s defense clobbered Brooklyn in the second half, holding the Nets to 84 points to mitigate Harden’s ineffectiveness.
While he’s more generous, Harden still gums up the offense. Embiid doesn’t need his pick-and-roll dance partner to dip into the fountain of youth and deliver prime MVP Harden performances every night, but it’s striking to see how far he’s fallen. Especially in light of the pay cut he took last offseason in an effort to put himself in position for a supermax extension and capitalize on the NBA’s “over 36-rule”, by setting himself up for one final long/term contract.
How far (and fast) the mighty have fallen
Two years ago, Harden was touted as one of the most clever scorers of our generation. His bag of moves left defenses so mystified, opposing players assumed their normal defensive stances with hands behind their backs to avoid sending him to the line.
This season, Harden took the fewest free throws per game since his rookie season. The postseason, when the refs hold their whistles, is where Harden has tended to bottom out. In his past three playoff appearances, Harden has played 117 straight minutes without a trip to the charity stripe.
Leading the Nets 2-0 might seem like an odd time to complain, but you’re the crazy one for not worrying about Harden’s ticking clock. This is the series where Harden should be flourishing and getting anywhere on the floor that he desires. Instead, Mikal Bridges is bottling him up like a repressed emotion.
There’s a possibility Harden starts catching lightning in a bottle and delivers a string of career-defining performances, but I wouldn’t count on it.