Sixers Need More From Harden in Game 2. Is He Capable of Stepping up to the Moment?

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By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

This was James Harden's time to step up and shine. Joel Embiid, an MVP finalist this season, is out for at least the first two games of the Philadelphia 76ers' second round series against the Miami Heat. This presented a golden opportunity for him to step up, carry the load and get the Sixers off to a good start to this series.

How did he respond? Well, at least through Game 1 his response was thoroughly underwhelming. He scored 16 points, had as many turnovers as made field goals (five) and disappeared completely in the second half.

He continues to show some flashes vintage Harden, such as when he scored seven points on 3-of-4 shooting in the second quarter of Game 1 against the Heat. However, even then things just are not the same. He lacks the same explosiveness he once had. Open shots after he shakes his man and gets to the rim are now contested shots at the rim. Open step-back threes have now become a little bit more contested than they once were. Together those things are showing the version of Harden who is able to drop 25-plus points on any given night are over.

The prior two years are case and point of showing what Harden is at this stage of his career. His best games, such as Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors when he scored 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting while dissecting the defense to dish out 15 assists, involve him picking up his scoring efficiency while dominating as a facilitator.

Is he capable, at 32 years old, of occasionally still taking over a game as a scorer or is he washed up and over the hill? The Sixers, after all, acquired him at the trade deadline with the expectation he would both be a good compliment to Embiid and be able to take some of the pressure off the big man. The answer to that question is yes, in the right circumstances.

In 28 games, including playoffs, with the Sixers Harden has scored 25 or more points seven times. However, he has not scored more than 22 points in any of the seven playoff games so far this season. He is still capable of carrying an offense, although doing it in the playoffs without Embiid against a team like the Heat who are well equipped to make life difficult for him offensively is a different story.

The Heat did a good job defending Harden throughout Game 1. They stuck the pesky, physical P.J. Tucker on him and nearly always had a second defender in the area to help clog the driving lanes. They also did a good job adjusting their pick-and-roll defense in the second half to thwart or at least make it more difficult for the Sixers to operate the pick-and-roll to find and attack the mismatch they wanted.

While Harden might not be able to score at a high level anymore, the Sixers need him to at least stay aggressive and facilitate the offense. After scoring 12 points and dishing out three assists in the first half, Harden disappeared entirely from the Sixers' offense in the second half. He scored four points, dished out two assists and took only four shots in the entire second half. His lack of impact on the game in the second half is inexcusable, especially when the Sixers were without their best player and in dire need for him to step up and lead the offense.

The version of Harden the Sixers are most likely to see is going to be reminiscent of Game 6 against the Raptors than his Houston Rockets days. While at this stage of his career it is unreasonable to expect him to play like he did in his prime, he should still be capable of playing aggressively throughout an entire game in addition to being a great facilitator.

The Sixers' formula for success offensively in Game 2 should not revolve around expecting Harden to recapture the magic and score 25-to-30 points. The outside shooting needs to be better than the brutal 6 of 34 they shot from three-point range in Game 1. A lot of their threes were high-quality shots, setting the Sixers up for some positive regression (they shot 36.4 percent from deep in the regular season). The role players and supporting cast will also need to step up and have good games.

Tobias Harris was one of the lone players on the roster who performed well in Game 1. He led all scorers with 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting from the field. A big part of his success came from using his size to attack mismatches and get to his spots on the floor.

Harris has been locked in on both ends of the floor thus far in the playoffs. The Sixers will need another big game from him in Game 2 if they are to have any shot of evening up the series coming into Game 3 back in Philadelphia.

Harden still has a shot to step up in this crucial moment for the Sixers. However, if the Sixers pull out the upset win in Game 2 it will more likely be from a combination of Harden playing efficiently and the supporting cast having big games rather than a monster game from Harden. Game 2 is tonight at 7:30 p.m. down in Miami.

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