After Tuesday night’s 120-85 loss to the Miami Heat, James Harden and Joel Embiid Thelma and Louise-towards the edge of a cliff. In Embiid’s defense, the MVP runner-up has played with a broken bone in his face since Game 3. The franchise cornerstone will see better days. Harden’s Game 4 with 31 points and 11 assists was hailed as a landmark turning point in his catalog of playoff disappointments, but it was not to be a departure.
Harden’s Game 4 is what real superstars do every night. Through five games against Phoenix, Luka Doncic has dropped 45, 35, 26, 26 and 28 points while shooting above the league average in almost every game. Devin Booker had a pipeline to the bucket, scoring 23, 30, 18, 35 and 28 against Dallas. In this series, Harden’s performance of 16, 20, 17, 31 and 14 points when he is perfectly healthy is not enough. These days, Harden farts the rare masterpiece and lets it float around for the rest of a series. There’s also no reason to think he can turn back the clock. Harden’s decline seems to be accelerating.
Making room for his shot or his teammates was Harden’s bread and butter. He’s a sensational talent who understands angles and manipulates undisciplined defenders, but he has the determination of a koala. When things get tough, Harden doesn’t adapt or dig deeper, he waves a white flag and walks through the moves. See how his contemporaries Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo fought through adversity by pushing themselves beyond their limits.
After fighting through three quarters, Curry meep-meep his way 18 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 on Monday to get his offense going on a rough night of shooting. He wore Memphis down in the fourth quarter, not the other way around. It felt like a repeat of Curry’s 33-point second half after a scoreless second half that eliminated Houston in Game 6 of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals. It’s not always pretty, but its level of stakes is undeniable.
Against a heat defense, that was Top 5 in field goal percentage and top 10 in points per possession while defending Iso situations, Harden’s lethargic style of basketball was stifled. He has neither the drive nor the willpower to do anything but contested stepbacks and begging umpires for ticky-tack fouls after being stripped by Heat defenders.
In five games, Harden averages 19.6 points on 40 percent shooting, 6.6 assists and five times per game when he turns over the ball. Butler may have fewer moves in his bag of tricks than any Superstar in the league, but he managed to obliterate The Beard. It’s a hardcore two-way wing that comes alive when the stakes are at their highest in the postseason. In Game 5, Butler posted a team-high 23 points and erased the Sixers’ backcourt. As a main defender, he allowed seven points in 2-of-8 shooting, according to ESPN.
If Philadelphia don’t win Games 6 and 7, the 76ers face an unenviable decision from Sophie. Post-season, Harden can choose whether or not to go into the final year of his contract and then sign a four-year, $223 million deal that would net him $60 million during his season at age 37 . Almost a decade ago, Sam Presti‘s original sin of trading Harden for squad scraps (Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks) cost the Thunder a title, if not a dynasty. That trade came because the Thunder disagreed with the value of a 23-year-old Harden during contract renewal negotiations after he evaporated in the 2012 finals.
Philly could let him play next season if the expansion cloud hovers over Harden’s head. But that also risks alienating Harden, who is well known to sabotage his own teams as he does not go his way. Are they offering Harden at a garage sale and hoping one of their 29 NBA neighbors will be interested in reclamation projects? Philadelphia will soon have to decide whether to ride this avalanche or get out early.