— James Harden
James Harden could very well determine the Sixers’ competitive ceiling. A healthy, spry version of Harden would make Philadelphia’s offensive borderline unstoppable. An injury-hampered, perimeter-bound version of Harden could spell a swift and unfulfilling end to the season.
Through two games in Brooklyn, Harden just hasn’t looked right. He scored eight points on 13 shots in game two. His surface-level numbers looked much better in game one, when he scored 23 points and dropped 13 assists. He hit seven 3s in that game, an undeniably impressive feat. But dig a little deeper, and Harden shot 1-of-8 inside the arc. His struggles turning the corner, getting into the paint, and finishing against athleticism are deeply concerning.
Harden has been slowed by an Achilles injury for a while now. There was speculation — largely driven by the Sixers and Harden himself — that the week off before the playoffs helped him get to a better place. Evidently, that is not the case. The Sixers need Harden to maintain his aggressiveness. He can still bury 3s and defenses will continue to sell out to stop him dribbling around a screen. But if Harden is only playing set-up man and not fully capable of being that offensive co-star Embiid needs, Philadelphia could be cooked once the second round arrives (where, again, a much stiffer Boston defense presumably awaits).
The Sixers have been able to survive substandard play from Embiid and especially from Harden through two games. They can probably survive it for two more, especially if Tobias Harris continues to thrive and Tyrese Maxey has more big nights like he did in game two (33 points, 6-of-13 from deep). But if the Sixers have any real hope of winning the championship, both Embiid and Harden need to be better.