James Harden’s fall in the playoffs is a reliable annual trend. Similar to Punxsutawney Phil emerging as a sign that spring has sprung, but with darker clouds in the forecast. For what seems like a decade, Harden has disappeared into his shell once he begins the best-of-seven portion of the schedule. If this feels like déjà vu, that’s because it is. You can connect a throughfrom Harden’s absence in the 2012 NBA Finals to his lobotomy on the hands of the miami heat in 2022.
If history is any indication, the assumption is that Harden will leave anyone who supports him frustrated. Warning signs of Harden morphing into playoff melanoma were present in the final weeks of the regular season after his burst began to subside as he battled a sore Achilles tendon. Whether it’s his washed-out Elvis fitness level, his physical ailment of the week, or just the accelerated aging of him, Harden is reliably unreliable once he begins the postseason schedule.
Where did it go wrong?
the sixers can survive the kind of one-dimensional game Harden delivered against Brooklyn’s can’t-find-he-below-of-to-Net lineups. He won’t slide into a second-round matchup.
In Game 1, Harden couldn’t finish inside, punching just 1 of 8 on 2-pointers and scoring 21 points on 23 shots.
“I couldn’t make a layup,” Harden confessed afterward.
That’s a worrisome sign for a virtuoso who had an unearthly ability to make defenses focused on him as the primary option look like tourniquets.
In Game 2, Harden raised the price of the brick, missing on 10 of his 13 attempts from the field, scoring just eight points. Fortunately, Philadelphia’s defense pummeled Brooklyn in the second half, holding the Nets to 84 points to mitigate Harden’s ineffectiveness.
While more generous, Harden still improves the offense. Embiid doesn’t need his pick-and-roll dance partner to plunge into the fountain of youth and deliver MVP Harden’s best performances every night, but it’s amazing how far he’s sunk. Especially in light of the pay cut he took last offseason in an effort to position himself for a supermax extension and capitalize on the NBA’s “over 36 rule,” preparing for a final long-term contract.
How far (and fast) have the mighty fallen
Two years ago, Harden was touted as one of the smartest scorers of our generation. His bag of moves left defenses so baffled that opposing players assumed their normal defensive stances with hands behind the back to avoid sending it to the line.
This season, Harden had the fewest free throws per game since his rookie season. The postseason, when the umpires hold their whistles, is where Harden has tended to hit rock bottom. In his last three playoff appearances, Harden has played 117 straight minutes without traveling to the charity strip.
Major the networks 2-0 may seem like an odd time to complain, but you’re the crazy one not to care about Harden’s clock ticking. This is the series where Harden should be flourishing and going anywhere on the court he wants. Instead, Mikal Bridges is bottling it up as a repressed emotion.
There’s a chance Harden will start catching lightning in a bottle and deliver a series of career-defining performances, but I wouldn’t count on it.