James Harden Finds His Old Groove and Gets the Sixers Back on Track

PHILADELPHIA — James Harden of the 76ers was on his method to the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday morning when he acquired a textual content message from his coach, Doc Rivers, that included a hyperlink to a gospel music, “You Know My Name” by Tasha Cobbs Leonard. . It was the first time Rivers had despatched Harden a music. His curiosity was piqued.

“I inform my homies, ‘Let’s play the music,’” Harden recalled, including, “I let the entire music play, and I’m like, ‘All proper, it is received to be some type of good juju on this music. ‘”

It was not some random textual content, after all. The basketball-watching universe had spent about 36 hours dissecting Harden’s poor play in the previous two video games of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference semifinal sequence with the Boston Celtics. The level of sending the music, Rivers mentioned, was to remind Harden of his id.

“James needed to get himself again,” Rivers mentioned.

Sure sufficient, with 19 seconds left in time beyond regulation Sunday afternoon, Harden sank a baseline 3-pointer that lifted the 76ers to a 116-115 victory and evened the best-of-seven sequence at 2-2. Harden was good in Game 4, ending with 42 factors, 9 assists, 8 rebounds and 4 steals.

“Quite frankly,” Harden mentioned, “immediately was do or die.”

The 76ers have been a staple of the NBA playoffs over the previous six seasons, making 5 appearances in the convention semifinals. But these second-round sequence are the place the highway has tended to finish for them. The final time they made the convention finals was in 2001, when Allen Iverson led them previous the Milwaukee Bucks and into the NBA finals. (The 76ers wound up dropping in 5 video games to the Los Angeles Lakers.)

The collective persistence of Philadelphians appears to be sporting skinny. Before Game 3, when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver introduced 76ers middle Joel Embiid along with his first Most Valuable Player Award, it was the achievement — on at the very least one stage — of the franchise’s dust-covered, team-building blueprint referred to as the Process. Without entering into too lots of the messy specifics, it concerned the workforce taking part in abysmal basketball for a number of seasons whereas amassing a slew of high draft picks, considered one of which they used to pick Embiid from the University of Kansas.

The problem for the 76ers, after all, is that the course of was by no means about profitable particular person honors, though these are good. The mandate now, on gamers like Embiid and Harden, but in addition on Rivers and Daryl Morey, the workforce’s president of basketball operations, is to vie for a championship. Embiid is 29. The 76ers traded for Harden final season. Before Game 4, Rivers was requested about his workforce’s stage of urgency.

“Do I really want to reply that query?” he mentioned, laughing. “You labored on that query for 48 hours, and that is what you got here up with? Whatever excessive is, I’m going to imagine it is excessive.”

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 by means of the hoop. It was an indication of extra pyrotechnics to come back.

None of it was straightforward. The 76ers gave up a 16-point third-quarter lead. Embiid completed with 34 factors and 13 rebounds, however struggled from the discipline, taking pictures 11 of 26. And Jayson Tatum scored 22 of his 24 factors after halftime, almost main the Celtics to a crushing comeback victory. Instead, Harden shouldered the load for the 76ers.

“I’m at all times a competitor,” he mentioned. “I at all times wish to win.”

During the common season, Harden operated as a facilitator, averaging a league-best 10.7 assists per recreation. 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 shaped a potent partnership with Embiid, the workforce’s centripetal drive. Everything and everybody revolved round Embiid, for good purpose, together with Harden.

Game 1 of the 76ers’ sequence with the Celtics upset that steadiness in an odd and surprising approach. Embiid had sprained his proper knee late in the first spherical and was sidelined, which meant that Harden apparently felt obliged to board his private time machine and journey again to his gluttonous, ball-dominant days with the Rockets. He torched the Celtics, scoring 45 factors whereas taking pictures 7 of 14 from 3-point vary to steer the 76ers to a slender win.

Embiid was again in the lineup for Games 2 and 3, and all of a sudden Harden appeared virtually too aware of his teammate’s presence, too passive and deferential. It hardly helped that Jaylen Brown affixed himself to Harden for lengthy stretches. In these two losses, Harden shot a mixed 5 of 28 from the discipline and 2 of 13 from 3-point vary. Game 3 on Friday was significantly grotesque. Harden routinely handed up open pictures. When he launched a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter, he barely grazed the entrance of the rim. More than just a few followers expressed their displeasure.

“I believe with anybody, should you’re not making pictures, you hesitate at instances,” Rivers mentioned.

For his half, Harden defended his shot choice, telling reporters: “I’m fairly good on basketball instincts. I do know when to attain. I do know when to go, so I’m fairly positive a number of it was the proper play.”

On Saturday, the 76ers had a prolonged movie session at their apply facility. Rivers recognized clips from Game 3 the place he felt the 76ers wanted to play with extra tempo, the place the Celtics outhustled them for rebounds and unfastened balls, and the place his gamers exhibited poor physique language. The Celtics, who superior to the NBA finals final season and have renewed title aspirations of their very own, carried themselves in another way.

“I believe the movie yesterday mentioned what we needed to be,” Rivers mentioned, “that they’ll make a run, that we will make a mistake. Things aren’t going to go nicely, and simply maintain taking part in.”

On Sunday, the 76ers made loads of errors. Their offense stalled in the fourth quarter. They stopped shifting and settled for powerful pictures. Harden, although, has playoff expertise, and he mentioned he was additionally impressed by the presence of John Hao, a pupil who survived the lethal taking pictures at Michigan State University in February. Harden and Hao linked over FaceTime.

Late in regulation, Harden’s runner over the Celtics’ Al Horford tied the recreation, 107-107. And in time beyond regulation, Harden got here up with a key steal whereas defending Marcus Smart. He appeared to have a chilled affect on his teammates.

He additionally discovered himself with the ball in his arms when it mattered most. He knew who he was.

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