After Tuesday night’s 120-85 loss to the Miami Heat, James Harden and Joel Embiid are Thelma and Louise-ing towards a cliff’s edge. In Embiid’s defense, the MVP runner-up has played with a broken bone in his face since Game 3. The franchise cornerstone will have better days ahead. Harden’s 31-point, 11-assist Game 4 was celebrated as a seminal turning point in his catalog of playoff disappointments, but it wasn’t supposed to be an aberration.
Harden’s Game 4 is what genuine superstars do every night. Through five games against Phoenix, Luka Dončić has deposited 45, 35, 26, 26 and 28 points while shooting above league average in nearly every outing. Devin Booker has had a pipeline to the bucket, scoring 23, 30, 18, 35 and 28 against Dallas. In this series, Harden’s output of 16, 20, 17, 31 and 14 points when he’s perfectly healthy doesn’t cut it. These days, Harden farts out the rare masterpiece and lets that waft around for the remainder of a series. There’s no reason to believe he can turn back the clock, either. Harden’s decay seems to be accelerating.
Creating space for his shot or teammates has been Harden’s bread and butter. He’s a sensational talent, who understands angles and manipulating undisciplined defenders, but he has the determination of a koala. When the going gets tough, Harden won’t adjust or dig deeper, he waves a white flag and goes through the motions. Peep how his contemporaries Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo have battled through adversity by pushing themselves beyond their limits.
After struggling through three quarters, Curry meep-meeped his way to 18 points in the fourth quarter of Monday’s Game 4 to get his offense going on a rough shooting night. In the fourth quarter, he wore Memphis down, not the other way around. It felt like a replay of Curry’s 33-point second half, following a scoreless second half to eliminate Houston in Game 6 of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals. It’s not always pretty, but his effort level is unquestioned.
Against a Heat defense that was top five in field goal percentage and top 10 in points per possession when defending iso situations, Harden’s lethargic brand of basketball has been stifled. He has neither the drive nor the willpower to take anything besides contested step-backs and begging refs for ticky-tack fouls after he gets stripped by Heat defenders.
Through five games, Harden is averaging 19.6 points on 40 percent shooting, 6.6 assists and turning the ball over five times per game. Butler may have fewer moves in his trick bag than any superstar in the league, but he’s managed to blot out The Beard. He’s a hardcore two-way wing that comes alive when the stakes are highest in the postseason. In Game 5, Butler scored a team-high 23 points and erased the Sixers’ backcourt. According to ESPN, he allowed seven points on 2-of-8 shooting as the primary defender.
If Philadelphia doesn’t win Games 6 and 7, the 76ers will face an unenviable Sophie’s choice. After the season, Harden can choose whether or not to opt into the final year of his deal, then sign a four-year $223 million contract that would net him $60 million during his age-37 season. Nearly a decade ago, Sam Presti’s original sin of trading Harden for roster debris (Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and three draft picks) cost the Thunder a title, if not a dynasty. That trade occurred because the Thunder disagreed with a 23-year-old Harden’s worth during contract extension negotiations after he evaporated in the 2012 Finals.
Philly could have him play out next season with the extension cloud hovering over Harden’s head. But that also risks alienating Harden, who has been known to sabotage his own teams when he doesn’t get his way. Do they put Harden up at a yard sale and hope one of their 29 NBA neighbors is into reclamation projects? Philadelphia has to decide soon if they want to ride this avalanche or bail early.