MIAMI — Wait, I thought they traded Ben Simmons.
On a night when the Sixers needed maximum output from their max-salary superstar, James Harden deferred. With MVP and workhorse Joel Embiid concussed, fractured, and torn back in Philly, Harden played Miami nice. Gentle Ben would have been proud.
Harden took just 13 shots in Game 1 against the Heat — fewer than the 13.2 he’d taken in his six-game somnambulance against the Raptors. He made just five. Again, there was no Embiid. This was the time. This was the moment.
Harden needed to transform from the brilliant, facilitating point guard he’d been since arriving at the deadline in a trade for the gun-shy Simmons. He needed to transform to the bloodless assassin who’d gunned his way to a certain Hall of Fame induction. It was time to produce.
He did not. Incredibly, he did not. Harden took one shot in the fourth quarter. One.
He had five turnovers. At times he looked like Stanley from The Office.
The Beard, so often magnificent, scored a scraggly 16 points Monday. That was three fewer than his average against Toronto, when Embiid played every game. Harden managed just four free throws. Only three times before since he left Oklahoma City a decade ago had he shot as few free throws in a playoff loss. This one they lost, 106-92.
Or, rather, Playoff Beard lost it. Throw this game into the debate about Harden’s ultimate greatness, which always seems to shrivel come spring.
What did the Sixers need from Harden?
They needed 20 shots. They needed 30 points. They needed 10 free throws. And they needed 36-year-old P.J. Tucker on the bench with four fouls in the third quarter. That’s what $44 million players need to do when their team loses its best player. Harden makes almost 20 percent more than the next-richest millionaire, but he didn’t play to scale.
He ran 35 minutes, but, for most of them, he was as absent as his convalescing center.
“I think I could be a little bit more aggressive,” Harden said.
Well, that’s like saying Joe Rogan could do better research.
“It’s not about James,” said coach Doc Rivers, who happened to be brilliant himself in Game 1.
Sorry, Doc, but it was. Monday night, in a money game, it damned sure was. It will be in Game 2 on Wednesday, too.
You can’t get 16 points and five turnovers from the second-highest-paid player in NBA history. You just cannot. Not with your Alpha out with a concussion, a fractured right orbital bone, and a torn thumb ligament.
Hell, Embiid would’ve given them more than 16 points Monday, painkillers and all.
As we learned during Simmons’ regression last season, Rivers has a history of gently acknowledging underperformances. He knows Harden had to produce.
“James can score more,” Rivers said, then softened it: We’ve got to get him in better spots.”
He also said, ”The physicality really had an impact.”
Nobody was more physical than Tucker, a 245-pound bouncer in short pants who played demolition derby with Harden all night. Sometimes it looked more WWE than NBA, but it was effective.
“P.J.’s P.J. He plays hard,” Harden said. “It’s nothing I’m concerned about.”
He should be, because Tucker rode him hard all night and put him up wet.
Was it all Harden? Of course not. Other guys choked, too.
The Sixers missed 28 of 34 three-pointers (17.6%), and 12 of 13 of those misses came from Georges Niang (0-for-7) and Tyrese Maxey (1-for-6).
The Sixers also gave up 15 offensive rebounds to a Heat team that averaged 9.8 in the regular season, which was 18th of the 30 teams in the in the league, and 8.2 in their first-round win over the Hawks, which was 12th of 16 teams in the playoffs. They gave up three boards in one third-quarter sequence alone.
That wasn’t coaching. That was effort. That was discipline.
The coaching was great.
Rivers devised a game plan that actually had the Sixers ahead, 51-50, at halftime. A game plan that held the Heat to 43.5% shooting. A game plan in which Tobias Harris scored 27 points and helped limit his opposite and former teammate, Jimmy Butler, to 15.
Harris makes $36 million, and he was ready. With Jo-Jo lying on his back, Harris put the team on his.
He just went along for the ride.