Harden’s Vintage Performance Powers Sixers to Win Over Bucks, Raises Ceiling Rest of Season

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) reacts to his three point score against the Memphis Grizzlies during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers were dead in the water. They were down to the Milwaukee Bucks 99-85 going into the start of the fourth quarter on Saturday night. From that point on, James Harden took over the game with a vintage performance reminiscent of his days on the Houston Rockets.

Nineteen of Harden’s season-high 38 points came in the fourth quarter. The Sixers scored 48 points in the fourth quarter before ultimately getting a comeback 133-130 win over the Bucks. Harden’s performance in the final frame was crucial as he made one big play after another.

“That’s what I do,” Harden said after the win, via Ky Carlin of USA Today. “I’m very comfortable in those situations. Whether it’s playmaking, whether it’s scoring, I’ve been doing it for a long time. So that’s just me out there playing basketball. I put the work in. I work on it every single day I practice and the results show.”

The Sixers began the quarter on a 15-2 run, closing what was a 14-point deficit down to one with 9:07 remaining. The lineup out on the floor during that stretch consisted of Harden surrounded by bench players. Georges Niang began the run by connecting on a pair of 3-pointers assisted by Harden. He finished the game with 16 points on 5-of-6 shooting from long distance. After struggling mightily in February, he regained his touch at a critical time. With the Bucks’ defense focused on stopping Harden, Niang was able to punish them for roaming away from him.

Harden got off to a hot start against Milwaukee before cooling off against Milwaukee’s tough defense. He shot a combined 3-of-10 between the second and third quarters. However, he clicked back into rhythm in the fourth quarter, beginning with a step-back 3-pointer over Antetokounmpo’s outstretched arm. On the following possession, he used a double drag screen to set himself up with a mismatch against Joe Ingles. The play resulted in a floater while getting fouled and would prove to be a sign of things to come.

In prior years, the Sixers would have been demolished in minutes with Joel Embiid off the floor, yet alone when Giannis Antetokounmpo is also on the floor. However, the Harden-led bench lineup was able to find a lot of success on Saturday. Harden is in the midst of a resurgent season, averaging 22.1 points and 10.6 assists while shooting 45.2% from the field and a career-high 40.5% from beyond the arc. Between the career-high efficiency from long distance, his driving ability and willingness to kick the ball out to the open man if the defense crashes on him, he is nearly impossible to stop this season.

Harden has the ability to anchor some bench lineups when Embiid is off the floor. Assuming head coach Doc Rivers makes the decision to stagger their minutes (not always a safe assumption), the Sixers possess the best solution to the non-Embiid minutes they ever have. The Sixers are winning Embiid-less minutes with Harden on the floor this season by 2.3 points per 100 possessions. That is a minor miracle for a team that in the past would consistently be crushed in the minutes the big man is off the floor.

After Embiid checked back into the game with 7:37 remaining, the Sixers’ offense ran mostly through the combination of Embiid and Harden. Their success in the pick-and-roll was on full display. Embiid did a good job attacking downhill off the catch, drawing a pair of fouls on Brook Lopez. Harden and Embiid combined to shoot 11-of-13 from the free-throw line in the decisive final quarter.

Harden had a commanding presence on the floor, diagnosing any potential mismatch and attacking it without mercy. In the first few minutes of the quarter, he had success attacking Ingles and Grayson Allen. Later on, he turned his attention to Khris Middleton. Harden, on consecutive possessions, squared up Middleton and drove past him to the rim. The first play resulted in a Harden layup. The second ended with Harden free throws after Middleton committed a blocking foul.

It is refreshing to see the Sixers on the positive end of a player attacking mismatches. If they can do that consistently, the Sixers could possibly present some major issues for the Bucks in a potential postseason matchup.

Harden was on a heater throughout the entirety of the fourth quarter. Even when the Bucks defended him well, blowing up an Embiid screen and nearly forcing a turnover, he found a way to knock down the shot. With the Sixers down four and under two minutes remaining, Harden drilled a 3-pointer from a step or two in front of the logo to cut it to a one-point game.

On the following possession, Harden drove to the basket, drawing four different Bucks defenders. He then expertly kicked it out to Embiid, who after sidestepping a wild closeout attempt by Middleton, canned the wide open 3-pointer that gave the Sixers a 127-125 lead with 42 seconds remaining. The shot proved to be the game-winner.

Harden’s excellent performance was made all the more impressive because it came in primetime against the Bucks. Milwaukee is second in the league in defensive rating (109.6) and is equipped with Jrue Holiday, one of the best perimeter defenders in the game.

Harden is the Robin to Embiid’s Batman, the best No. 2 option the Sixers have had in Embiid’s career. If he can play remotely close to the way he did against the Bucks, the Sixers are capable of competing against anyone. The Sixers can be a frustrating team. Years of second-round playoff exits have perhaps dampened the optimism in Philadelphia around this team.

However, this Sixers team consists of the right combination of talent and veteran leadership to be able to change things. The Sixers also have big wins under their belt this season against nearly all the top teams in the league. The Boston Celtics are the lone exception. Harden playing at an incredibly high level raises the Sixers’ ceiling. There is still a ton of season left, but this team has undoubtedly is capable of competing for a championship. Strap in and enjoy the ride.