DURING THE POSTGAME news conference following Philadelphia‘s first-round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, a question was posed to 76ers guard James Harden.
What are your motivations for this season, besides winning a championship?
In his answer, Harden kept coming back to one word: sacrifice.
“I told myself this year, that it’s just, I’m all big on sacrifice,” said Harden, who finished Game 4 with 17 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. “Whether it’s the money or my role, just letting everything go and just sacrificing — and then seeing what it gives me.”
“Throughout the entire year,” he continued, “people expect me to be the scoring James Harden and the James Harden that goes out there and gets 40, 50 points. And then people talk: ‘Oh, you can’t win like that.’
“And then I’ll go out there and get 20 points and 11 assists. And it’s like, ‘Well, he’s not the old James Harden no more.'”
Last summer, Harden took less money to return to Philadelphia on a one-year, $33 million deal with a player option for a second year, a move that created enough salary cap room for the 76ers to sign P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., Harden’s former teammates with the Houston Rockets.
Within the 76ers’ offense, Harden has often fallen back into a facilitator role, while MVP favorite Joel Embiid and young guard Tyrese Maxey fulfill Philadelphia’s scoring duties. Harden’s points, field goal attempts and free throw attempts per game in 2022-23 were all lower than they were in any season since joining the Rockets in 2012.
Could Harden, 33, have made those sacrifices during his peak with the Rockets?
“No. No way,” Tucker told ESPN with a laugh. “Impossible.”
“With all the accomplishments he has, the only thing he has left is to win a championship,” Tucker said. “And I know he knows at this age, and at this stage of his career, he could still probably do some of the stuff — a lot of stuff — he was doing before, but he needs somebody else like [Embiid], another star, to make that happen.
“And him sacrificing has to happen for that to take place.”
On Monday night at Boston’s TD Garden, Harden and the 76ers will begin a titanic showdown with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. (Embiid is doubtful to play in Game 1 because of a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his right knee, and his status beyond that is unclear.)
For a team that hasn’t made the NBA Finals since 2001 and hasn’t won a championship since 1983, the acquisition of Harden last season was supposed to get them there. Over the next two weeks, Harden will have a chance to have the postseason moment he has spent years chasing — and the past 15 months sacrificing to get.
HARDEN AND PHILADELPHIA have shared a similar path to reach this point.
Since the 76ers made the playoffs for the first time with Embiid in the 2017-18 season, only the Milwaukee Bucks have won more regular-season games. Meanwhile, since Harden was traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Rockets ahead of the 2012-13 season, he has both generated the most win shares and the most points in the NBA over that 11-year span.
But both sides have been defined by playoff failings.
The 76ers have lost in the conference semifinals four of the past five years — they were swept out of the first round in 2020 by the Celtics in the other postseason — including disappointing defeats as the favorites in both 2018 to Boston and 2021 to the Atlanta Hawks.
Harden has come agonizingly close to breaking through himself, including a seven-game loss in the 2018 Western Conference finals to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
These playoffs present both sides with chances to change those narratives.
The pay cut Harden took last summer allowed 76ers president of basketball operations — and former Rockets general manager — Daryl Morey to reunite with Tucker and House in the offseason, while the draft-night acquisition of De’Anthony Melton via trade with the Memphis Grizzlies brought another dose of much-needed toughness and perimeter defense.
The 76ers also were able to spend an entire season getting Harden — who joined the 76ers in the final months of the 2021-22 campaign — acclimated to his teammates.
“I think he and [coach] Doc [Rivers] and Joel really have been on the same page, but probably the person who had to change the way he approaches and plays the game the most was James,” Morey told ESPN.
“Playing with [Embiid] does take some changes, right? Joel operates so well out of that nail area near the free throw line that is often the area that James would operate in on drives and things like that. So yeah, it’s been an adjustment; but obviously, it’s worked really, really well and put us in a great spot.”
Those adjustments have created the league’s most potent one-two punch. The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll combination generated an NBA-high 17.5 points per game directly off their actions during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.
Harden assisted Embiid 244 times, by far the most by one player to another. As a result, they became the first teammates to lead the league in scoring (Embiid, at 33.1 PPG) and assists (Harden, at 10.7 APG) since the San Antonio Spurs‘ George Gervin and Johnny Moore 40 years ago, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“It’s been pretty incredible to see him kind of take the back seat to Joel and kind of figure it out,” Tucker said of Harden.
“It makes me really know how much he does want to win.”
FOR THE 76ERS to reach their ceiling, it is going to require an improved performance than what Harden provided against the Nets.
Across the four-game series, Harden shot 9-for-34 from 2-point range — and that included going 5-for-8 from inside the arc in Game 3 before being ejected for hitting Nets forward Royce O’Neale in the groin.
Harden’s 7 for 30 performance in the paint during the series was the worst paint field goal percentage of any player since play-by-play was first tracked in 1996-97, per ESPN Stats & Info data, leading several scouts who watched to express concern for Harden’s inability to create separation and finish when he isn’t drawing fouls.
“He missed shots he makes,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said after Game 4. “He got every shot that he wanted.
“If he gets there most of the time, most of those are going to go in. We know that.”
Those makes and misses, combined with the uncertainty of Embiid’s injury status, could be the difference between the 76ers breaking through to the conference finals or journeying into another pressurized offseason.
Harden could decline his player option for next season and become an unrestricted free agent. (ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Dec. 25 that Harden was seriously weighing a potential return to the Rockets this summer.)
Tucker, for his part, has provided every bit of the grit the 76ers hoped he would when they signed him last summer, but he is going to turn 38 years old on Friday, when Philadelphia hosts Boston for Game 3 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
And while Rivers led Philadelphia to an overachieving 2021-22 regular season and navigated absences of Embiid, Harden and Maxey during this past regular season, he hasn’t guided a team to the conference finals since the Celtics in 2012.
This series presents an opportunity to change all of it — and make Harden’s “sacrifice” worth it.
“You often don’t get multiple shots [at an NBA title] in a career,” Morey said, “and James has had a few that were pretty good shots. But this is probably his best shot. Look, we’re going against an extremely good Celtics team, but it’s right there. …
“He wanted a chance to win the title and we’ve got it, so let’s go do it.”