For weeks, The Beard has been a 5 o’clock shadow of himself.
He was back Sunday night, in all of his silky magnificence.
Harden scored 31 points, hit six threes, and dealt nine assists in his best performance of the Sixers’ 10 postseason games. Jimmy Butler dropped 40, but the Beard beat Jimmy Buckets, 116-108, and tied the Eastern Conference Semifinal at 2-2.
“We need him to be aggressive,” said Tobias Harris, the Sixers’ most consistent player in the playoffs. “Tonight he got going. You saw the confidence in him — getting downhill first. When he’s in a groove like that, you just give him the ball and keep him going.”
“Nothing really changed. I just made some shots,” Harden said initially.
Actually, he took 18 shots and 10 threes, more than he’d taken in the nine previous playoff games. Eventually, he allowed, “I was being aggressive, trying to take the best shot available.”
Harden, 32, was acquired from the Nets at the deadline for passive point guard Ben Simmons to lead the team in action and word. Before Sunday he’d talked a good game.
Certainly, he’d been a passable point guard, and he needed time to acclimate himself to the first dominant post presence he’s ever played with, but the Sixers didn’t need another Mo Cheeks. They needed another Allen Iverson. When you’re making $44 million, and when you have an MVP award and a scoring title in your past, 18.6 points per game on 39.8% shooting in the playoffs puts you in a hairy spot.
It became apparent immediately that, with the return of Embiid in Game 3, the Sixers were, by far, a better team than the Heat. It was still unknown how, exactly, the Sixers would deal with this realization.
Would they attack? Would they lay back?
Answer: Attack. Attack. Attack.
Harden attacked. Joel Embiid attacked when he could. Georges Niang — Georges Niang? — attacked. He had 10 off the bench.
The Sixers are becoming more and more like themselves. This should terrify not only the Heat, who are cooked (book it), but also the Celtics and Bucks in the other bracket. If Harden’s hot and Maxey is for real and Harris keeps playing the best ball of his career, the NBA Finals should be in their future.
Embiid’s that good.
He missed the first two games of this Eastern Conference semifinal in Miami. He overcame a concussion that fractured his right eye socket in the final game of their first-round win over Toronto — a series in which he tore a tendon in his right (shooting) thumb — and missed six days of workouts, which has cost him his legs.
Harden also missed the first two games of this series, even though he was in attendance.
To be fair, Harden managed Game 3 reasonably well, and the Sixers won, but he was better Sunday. He was his old self Sunday. And, as often happens, the most dynamic player was central in the game’s defining moment.
With just under 10 minutes left in the game, and with Embiid watching from the bench, the Sixers retracted into a 2-3 zone. Butler, who has been the best player on either team since the series shifted north — he had 33 on Friday — missed a 3-pointer in air-ball fashion.
Harden replied with his third 3 of the game. That made it a 12-point lead. That remained the difference until Embiid returned with 7:11 left.
Perhaps just as significantly, Harden had driven to the basket, drawn a foul, and hit two free throws on the Sixers’ previous possession.
Attack. Attack. Attack.
“That was great. Great to see,” said Maxey, who had been the team’s chief attacker before Game 4.
He’s only in his second season, but Maxey has understood from the start what the veterans seem to forget: That aggression is what it takes to beat a pesky team like the Heat.
They’re the top seed in the East, but they’re also a collection of gritty overachievers, from point guard Kyle Lowry, once considered a bust; to Butler, an All Star who will never forget he was the last man drafted in the first round in 2011; to coach Eric Spoelstra, Pat Riley’s front man who’s a .500 playoff coach in five postseason trips since LeBron James left eight years ago.
Harden had to be great because Embiid still isn’t Embiid. He had 24 points and 11 rebounds, but he often was exhausted and therefore erasable.
The Heat played without Bam Adebayo’s backup center, Dewayne Dedmon, who was sick. That usually meant 6-foot-5 forward P.J. Tucker was charged with guarding Embiid, who is listed at 7 feet but plays much larger.
Between Embiid’s inability to establish dominant position against smaller defenders and the wings’ baffling inability to deliver simple entry passes to him, the Sixers took advantage far less often than you’d imagine. This made Harden’s contribution crucial.
It will be just as crucial Tuesday in Game 5.