With just one minute and 15 seconds remaining in Game 4, James
Harden stared at holes in the Miami Heat's defense, preparing to
make his move.
Danny Green crept up to Victor Oladipo's right side to create a
driving lane for Harden's preferred left, and so Tyler Herro hedged
the pick-and-roll to stop Harden in his tracks. Then, with just
five seconds to improvise, Harden whipped out a slew of crossovers,
stepped back to his right while gathering across his body, nearly
dropped the ball and proceeded to nail the game-sealing three.
Harden's 16 fourth-quarter points were the most he's scored in
the final frame of an NBA playoff game since way back in
2015. Moreover, Sunday was just the second time since the turn of
the new year that Harden broke 30 points in a game, regular season
or the playoffs. It was only fitting that the shot that had failed
him most in his down year signed, sealed and delivered his keystone
performance of the season.
It's true. Harden's step-back three, a weapon that once sent
shivers of fear up and down defenders' spines, fell off a
statistical cliff during the 2021-22 season. The Beard connected on
just 33.3% of his 199 step-back treys this season; yet, in his
previous four seasons, that percentage sat at 38.9% on 1,431 shots.
Quite the tailspin, indeed.
It's tough to decipher what has fueled that decline. One could
make the case that his lift has failed him; now, he's unable to
generate the same level of space when moving front-to-back on his
signature shot. Maybe it's his free-falling first step, as James is
no longer able to keep defenders on their toes in lieu of the
threat of his drive, making those step-backs all the easier to
contain. More than likely it's a combination of both, a consequence
of multiple hamstring strains in the previous season and an
offseason set back by slow, plodding rehabilitation.
But that was the beauty of Sunday. Those arguments about the
former MVP's decline, for the first time in a while, were best
saved for another day. In Game 4, he was sublime — nah man, let's
be real — he looked like Prime Harden in certain stretches,
knocking down 4 of his 7 step-backs en route to 31 points on 69.2%
True Shooting. Heck, the dude was feeling it so much he even took
(and made!) a catch-and-shoot three.
But Harden's barrage of step-backs wasn't his only divine
This drive in the second quarter was one of Harden's best rim
attacks of the entire 2021-22 season after getting the switch
against Herro. An hour(-ish) later, he did similar things against
Bam Adebayo, first getting a half-step on the Defensive Player of
the Year finalist, and then whipping out a
nasty hesitation dribble to clear his way to the rim
for the uncontested lay-up.
Of course, Harden wasn't without his flaws. On numerous
occasions, the 32-year-old was stonewalled on drives to the rim, a
trend that has reared its ugly head throughout the entirety of the
season; his 59.8% shooting within 3 feet of the basket was his
worst regular-season mark since his rookie year. It didn't really
matter who was in front of him — PJ Tucker, Jimmy Butler, Victor
Oladipo... shoot, even Herro — if Harden couldn't generate any
space with his dribbling forrays, his drives were as good as
done-zo, swallowed up or just flat-out swatted into nothingness by
a defense eager to pounce. Overall, the Beard shot just 1 of 7 on
his drives to the rim.
I've long worked under the hypothesis that Harden's decline in
zippiness, and especially his first step, has dramatically affected
his once-touted decelaration game. Why? Well, because his top speed
has been dampered, Harden now has nothing to contrast with when he
drags his feet to slow down. What I'm saying is: He's effectively
working at one speed for the entirety of his drives, and
it makes him all too predictable as a downhill-heavy player.
The first clip in the video below is a great example. Harden
does a nice job getting a shoulder into Butler's body after a
series of crossovers, but because his first three steps are so
sluggish, Butler is able to stay an arm's reach away. Then, when
Harden decelerates in the cadence that once made him so tough to
tango with, his change-of-pace game actually works against
him and gives Butler ample room to recover for the
One thing that has remained a constant this year has been
Harden's passing, which, whew. He tossed out some beauties
Harden was just about the only Sixer who could capably feed Joel
Embiid entry passes against the relentlessly fronting Miami Heat
defense, powering a 15-point first quarter for the MVP
front-runner. His second-quarter lay-down pass to a cutting Tobias
Harris after faking it to Tyrese Maxey in the strong-side corner
was just vintage stuff from one of the best passers in the
Sunday marked Harden's sixth game of tossing out 9 dimes or
more, which ties Ja Morant for the most playoff games with 9+
assists this current postseason.
Game 4 was more than just another extraordinary performance
etched into a storied legacy; it was the physical representation of
a player breaking out of the shackles of his least efficient season
since just 20 years of age.
Is it sustainable? Can Harden continue to supercharge and lead a
playoff offense? And, maybe more importantly, can The Beard helm
the Sixers into winning the minutes (by +3) with its superstar in
Embiid off the floor?
That much is to be determined... and is maybe the biggest swing
factor of the 2022 postseason. Sure, Harden had himself a monstrous
showing with his team's season on the line, but 6 of his 8 makes
came from the three-point line; otherwise, he went just 2 of 8 from
two-point range on the night — a troubling trend for a player
that's so rim-dependent.
It's crazy, but suddenly, one of the league's most prestigious
scorers — a walking 50-point bucket just two seasons ago and a
former MVP — is one of the NBA's biggest X-factors in the
The success of his Philadelphia 76ers rides on his ability to
take a step back, step-back and reclaim his greatness on the shot
that brought him to the forefront of the NBA landscape.
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