Philadelphia 76ers: Yeah, James Harden took that personally

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

When the Philadelphia 76ers took the court for a season-ending rubber match versus the Milwaukee Bucks, the pressure was on for James Harden.

After turning in a wonderful showing versus the Los Angeles Clippers, where he put up 29 points, seven assists, and 15 rebounds in 34 minutes of action, Harden struggled in his first game back to his collegiate stomping grounds wearing the red, white, and blue, and left many outside observers pontificating over his offensive decline.

Some called Harden slow, while others knocked his interior scoring, and others still question whether he was even worthy of being considered a second star at the same level as Joel Embiid.

Fortunately, James Harden has been one of the best players in the world for a decade now, so he knows when to turn it on when he needs to – assuming his hamstring is feeling good, which we will get into later. While the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t ultimately pull out a win versus Coach Bud and the Bucks, it wasn’t because of “The Beard,” as he turned in one of his best showings reunited with Daryl Morey.

The Philadelphia 76ers need a healthy James Harden in the worst way.

Between you and me, I never quite subscribed to the rationale that James Harden’s game would age poorly.

Sure, the Philadelphia 76ers’ scoring guard may have lost a step or two from his prime, but when you watch the “Bearded One” take the ball up the court, he isn’t looking to fly to the basket like his multiple-time teammate Russell Westbrook. No, Harden’s game is far more methodical, sizing up would-be defenders with his eye-popping handles and baiting them into overcommitting one way or another before he drives to the bucket or steps back for his signature 3.

When playing alongside the starters or with reliable quick triggers like Georges Niang, Harden is willing to pass out of a contested look to an open teammate and has formed a really good pick-and-roll attack with Joel Embiid that routinely leaves defenders slack-jawed when he skips a pass to number 21 for a quick two above the rim. Harden is also a deceptively good rebounder, having averaged two more boards per game than his career average since making South Philly his adoptive home. That mark, if you can believe it, ranks second on the team ahead of Tobias Harris, DeAndre Jordan, and every other player without the last name Embiid, and shows a willingness to take the ball off the board and get the offense into its set without the help of a frontcourt player.

While that may not seem like a big deal, starting more possessions with Embiid in the painted area instead of at the top of the key is a nice change of pace.

So what gives? Why does Harden look like his old self one game and like a diminished product the next? I can’t definitively say, but it is publically reported knowledge that Harden has been dealing with a hamstring injury all season long, and said injury does make it harder to run at full speed, ramp up in short bursts, and even move laterally, depending on the severity of the pull. Could Harden’s hamstring still not be 100 percent? Could some days be better than others, and especially when a few games are played right in a row, it gradually flares up under an expansive workload?

I think that is very much a possibility.

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Look, James Harden is not a perfect player. He gets a bit too ball dominant at times and will bully himself into a tougher shot than he needs to if he doesn’t have faith in the players he’s on the court with. Call it “aging superstar syndrome,” but you’ll see a handful of plays per game where Tyrese Maxey or even Joel Embiid is calling for the ball only to watch Harden take a bad shot instead of facilitating to an eager teammate. That, my friends, is a more pressing issue than whether or not “The Beard” has lost a step, especially since he might be a good bit further from 100 percent healthy than the Philadelphia 76ers would like folks to know.