Thursday night’s matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets had all the hype of a Game 7 packed into a regular-season game in early March. From Ben Simmons’ return to Philly to James Harden battling his former team, there was no shortage of excitement.
Then the game started.
76ers fans suffered through a 129-100 drubbing at the hands of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Nets. Worse yet, it was a complete no-show performance from Harden, the club’s new superstar.
With the playoffs right around the corner, the Sixers are counting on Harden and Joel Embiid to deliver the franchise’s first championship in 40 years. However, they can’t help but feel anxious about the Beard’s performances in big-time games moving forward.
James Harden had a disastrous game against the Nets
There was very little to complain about after Harden’s first five games with the Sixers. The 2017-18 MVP averaged 24.6 points, 12.4 assists, and 7.6 rebounds since making his Sixers debut on Feb. 25. He also shot 53.1% from the field, 44.8% from three, and registered a team-best plus-minus of +16.2 in the five Philly wins.
To be frank, that Harden was not the one that showed up against his former team.
Weeks after more or less forcing a trade from the Nets, Harden had an early opportunity to exact his revenge. Instead, he finished the game with 11 points on 3-of-17 shooting, an awful 17.6% clip. The Beard also checked out with six rebounds, five assists, four turnovers, and a team-worst -30.
Astoundingly, all three of Harden’s makes came from beyond the arc. The 6-foot-5 guard joined former teammate Russell Westbrook as the only players this season to go 0-of-10 from two in a single game, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info.
Harden spoke to NBC Sports Philadelphia after the game and admitted that, while it wasn’t much fun, it will ultimately do him and the 76ers some good.
“Tonight was good for us, man. We got our a** kicked,” Harden told reporters. “Since I’ve been here, everything has been sweet and we’ve been winning games. So tonight was good for us and [now] we get an opportunity to come down to reality, watch film, and just continue to get better.”
The loss painted a dark picture of what the 76ers can expect from Harden
While his playing style can be infuriating, there’s no denying that Harden’s overall numbers are Hall of Fame-caliber. But postseason success has largely eluded the 32-year-old, mostly due to his own poor performance.
Harden has come up short in the playoffs multiple times. He struggled during his lone Finals performance with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012, averaging 12.4 points on 37.5% shooting. Facing elimination three years later, Harden mustered up a measly 14 points with 12 turnovers as the Houston Rockets lost the Western Conference Finals in five games. He had similar performances in Houston’s elimination games in both 2017 and ’18.
Just last year, Harden bounced back from injury to play in Brooklyn’s last three games against the Milwaukee Bucks. But he went 1-of-10 in Game 5, scored 16 points in Game 6, and ended his season with 5-of-17 shooting from the field and 2-of-12 shooting from distance.
So how can the 76ers expect Harden to suddenly flip the switch and carry them to the promised land? Especially when he’s struggling against elite teams in the regular season too.
One Reddit user pointed out Harden’s numbers against the top-11 teams in the NBA this season. For a Sixers team that will face at least three, if not four of those clubs over the course of a playoff run, the 13-year vet is approximately scoring 19 points on 37% shooting in 15 games.
It’s one thing to destroy the Orlando Magics and Detroit Pistons of the world. It’s another to be your best against the league’s elite teams. Whether it’s the postseason or the regular season, Harden hasn’t proven himself to be up for the challenge.
James Harden has a few chances to improve his reputation before the playoffs
The 76ers have to be worried about their playoff outlook after Harden’s performance on Thursday. But until then, the Beard has a few chances to shake off his big game demons.
Philly hosts the Denver Nuggets in a nationally-televised game on Monday. While the focus will be Embiid going head-to-head against fellow MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, Harden can steal the show with a big performance. The Sixers immediately follow that up with battles against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks, two rock-solid playoff teams with strong defenses.
A week after hosting Denver, Philly then welcomes in the East-leading Miami Heat. Then about a week after that, the Sixers go back-to-back with last year’s NBA Finals teams, the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks.
The rest of the season won’t be a cakewalk for Harden and the 76ers. If he balls out against those teams, perhaps he and the team will regain some confidence in his championship-level abilities. But if he falters as he did against Brooklyn, it’ll be time for the Sixers to hit the panic button and truly evaluate whether they’re ready to commit to the high-scoring guard long term.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.