James Harden is not what he used to be, but he does need the Sixers

Tobias Harris would usually have more to say, but he was trying to take it easy on his windpipe after absorbing an inadvertent Bam Adebayo elbow to the neck in the second half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 116-108 win against the Miami Heat in Sunday’s game. 4 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Harris just got to the heart of the matter when asked about James Harden’s 31-point night, including 16 of the Sixers’ 27 points in the decisive fourth quarter.

“What we need him to do on a nightly basis is what he does,” Harris said in a raspy voice. “Just be solid for us and pick up the defense of how they’re playing him.”

This is the new vision for James Harden.

He doesn’t need to reprise his 2018 MVP form for the Sixers to win.

He doesn’t need to fill up the box score or hit game-ending clutch shots. He doesn’t even need to take 20 shots, which is used for a low number for him.

Harden took just 18 shots in Game 4, but it was plenty because he scored or assisted on 54 of the 98 points (55%) of the Sixers while he was on the court.

This version of James Harden, the 32-year-old one traded for the Sixers in February for a long-term partnership, only needs to solidify and organize his team’s offense based on how the defense is playing him.

Joel Embiid (24 points, 11 rebounds) can do the rest. Harris (13 points, four assists) and Tyrese Maxey (18 points, four assists) can fill in the scoring and playmaking gaps. Danny Green can space the floor (11 points on 3-for-4 shooting from 3).

But Harden has to be the quarterback.

“He does a great job evaluating the game,” Harris said. “Of where he can make plays, where he can take his shots. Tonight he’s going. You could see the confidence in him getting downhill first, and then the 3-ball opened it up for him.

“He sees so many defensive coverages out there. A lot of times they zone up the court as well, so sometimes it’s tough for him to be extremely aggressive on the offensive end. But when he’s in a groove like [Sunday night]we just get him the ball and keep it going. “

The Heat has pressured Harden throughout the series by denying him the space to operate, especially when Embiid is not on the court.

In the first two games, which Embiid missed with a concussion and a broken orbital bone, Miami swarmed Harden with multiple defenders or threw a zone at him to muck up the Sixers’ offense.

According to Second Spectrum, the average closest defender to Harden in Game 1 was 3.7 feet. In Game 2 it was down to 3.1 feet, the closest any game he has played in the past three seasons.

In Game 3, when Embiid returned to the lineup, the difference was even more pronounced. With Embiid on the court Miami gave Harden 3.7 feet, but only 2.6 feet when Embiid was off it.

Taking space away from Harden is like depressing a fire of oxygen. Former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and past-and-present general manager Daryl Morey try to build an empire in Houston for the radical, unabashed creation of space for Harden – and nearly succeeded but for the dynastic Golden State Warriors of the same era. and Chris Paul’s injured hamstring.

Morey, now Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations, had much of the same vision for the Sixers when he started trying to trade for Harden.

If he could create a roster to space the floor around Harden, but with Embiid as an all-world co-star, there was no telling what kind of offensive juggernaut he could become.

But the reality of Harden’s age and current abilities has been glaring in his short time in Philadelphia. Whether he has lost a step – or three – it is clear he cannot defy time and space the same way he once did.

The Heat has seized on Harden’s inability to get defenders as he used to throughout this series. But in Game 4, he flipped the script.

He started draining 3-pointers to draw defenders out of the basket. He attacked the zone defenses and double-teams Miami threw at him. All of which created space, where there was very little before.

According to Second Spectrum tracking data, Harden created 3.6 feet separation with the court Sunday and 5.1 feet with Embiid off the floor.

Four of the five shots Harden took with Embiid off the floor were 3-pointers, which is why he had so much space. He also hit six of the 10 3-pointers he took on the night, after struggling behind the arc in the first three games, shooting 21% from 3.

So some of this is just hitting shots as opposed to missing them. But for Harden, it’s always about space. When he has it – whether he creates the space or the team’s offensive system – he can find his rhythm and control in a game. When he doesn’t, he looks lost and frustrated.

Sunday was the version of Harden the Sixers has been waiting for, even if it is still not Harden of old. Because when he’s reading the floor and regulating the game as he did in Game 4, the Sixers look like a team that can beat anyone.

“Since he gotten here he’s been adjusting based on what we need from him,” Embiid said. “Whether it’s playmaking or tonight – just going and getting a bucket based on how they were guarding everyone else. Making tough shots. He’s been doing that his whole career.”

Harden downplayed his contributions to Sunday’s win compared to the struggles he has had throughout the series.

“Nothing really changed,” Harden shrugged. “I just made some shots.”

But then he said something that put his entire journey with the Sixers – and the NBA middle age – into perspective.

“We’re still a fairly new team,” Harden said. “We’re barely two months in. … We’re finally settling into the series. We found some great things that’ll work tonight.”

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