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James Harden trade a bust for 76ers – key issues and questions Philly faces

There's yet more NBA action to tuck into as every game in the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, as well as the NBA Finals, will be shown live on Sky Sports

James Harden in action during the NBA Playoffs
Image: James Harden in action during the NBA Playoffs

There is no doubt about it. James Harden is not the MVP-calibre player he used to be with the Houston Rockets.

He hit two shots in the second half on Thursday night. This is the man who used to get criticised for taking too many shots when he played on the Rockets - a volume-hungry shooter.

"Ran our offense and the ball just didn't get back to me," was Harden's assessment for why he wasn't more aggressive in the Philadelphia 76ers' 99-90 defeat at home to the Miami Heat in Game 6 which eliminated them from this season's NBA Playoffs.

The truth is Harden hasn't been the same player since he let his weight balloon to help force the Rockets to trade him when he decided time was up in Houston.

Whether conditioning was an excuse or not, and Harden has been battling health issues including a hamstring injury, his body language in the second half when he was hardly breaking into a jog back up court in transition in a win-or-go-home playoff game struck some very bad notes.

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Jimmy Butler finished with 32 points and 8 rebounds as the Miami Heat defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 99-90 to clinch a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals

As we noted on Sky Sports a few weeks back, the real James Harden has yet to show up in Philadelphia. Or at least, what used to be the real James Harden hasn't.

His shooting percentages and volume have cratered and he has been nowhere near the complementary scorer alongside Joel Embiid that the Sixers superstar probably deserves for his MVP-calibre season and his desire to fight through a litany of injuries to be successful.

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"I'm sure since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden," Embiid said. "But that's not who he is anymore.

"He's more of a playmaker. I thought at times all of us could've been more aggressive."

Embiid was diplomatic throughout the press conference.

Inexcusable lack of effort

Tobias Harris, though, without naming names, admitted that the effort shown was not what it should've been and that the 76ers could have tried harder.

"Game 5 and this game, the games that we've lost, we had no real flow to the way that we wanted to play," Harris said. "I'm specifically talking about the offensive end in that. And that also led to, on the defensive end, a lack of effort there as well. It shouldn't, but it's basketball and it's human nature.

"We've never really grasped in the games that we've lost the true flow of how we play basketball and we've had spurts in the series where we've shown how good we are as a group and a team, and we've never got to it tonight and Game 5 in my opinion."

Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris (12) drives past Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Image: Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris in action against James Harden, when he was still with the Brooklyn Nets, back in December

He didn't stop there.

"At times, for our group, too many things just affected us as a whole," Harris said. "We drop our heads too much, our body language at times is crappy. We needed that to be better. Our mental toughness hurt us versus that group. We needed to be better as a collective at holding our head [up] and just fighting and going right back at it. I don't think we did a good enough job of that.

"It's not simple to fix, it just comes with the intent. Every man to himself, the intent that you come into the game with, the energy that you come in with, that's a huge part of it."

A damning indictment. And a veiled swipe, perhaps?

No excuse for excusing failure

Harden, to his credit, was the first Sixer to speak to the media after the game, but he was looking for excuses as to why it didn't come together rather than accepting responsibility.

"For me, personally, it's been a long year," said Harden. "Since I got here, we tried to do something so fast. We tried to build a championship contender team so fast, which I still think we are. We're just missing a few pieces but other than that, we tried to go for it right away and we just came up a little short.

"It's been a long two years for me, I'm finally starting to feel okay. It'll be a great summer for me to get my body right and be ready to go for next year. These last two years have been a whirlwind though. I'm excited, man, I've been trying to get right during the course of a basketball season for two years straight, that's not it. I was rehabbing and it was a little frustrating because I'm not used to going through something like that."

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The HeatCheck team discuss whether pressure is building on James Harden during the previous NBA Playoffs series against the Toronto Raptors. Catch Sky Sports HeatCheck every Tuesday night at 9pm on Sky Sports Arena

Harris, though, is not accepting excuses.

"I still think we had enough firepower, enough options, to come out and win this series," he said. "It's easy to say like 'Hey get the group back together, get training camp,' and all of that stuff.

"There are things that we obviously didn't do to the best of our ability in this series and that's why we lost. Those things that we could have controlled, that we were doing, and that's truly the disappointing fact. I could see if we just came out and gave it 100 per cent effort and gave it the greatest effort we could and just lost, but that wasn't the case in this series."

Harden's looming payday

Head coach Doc Rivers talked about a lack of "execution" being the problem, Harden has probably been the biggest culprit in that regard.

Harden scored all of his 11 points in the first half. He had four turnovers and four baskets. Harden, who has a $47.4 million player option for 2022-23, missed both shots in the second half and scored his last basket at the 3:31 mark of the second quarter.

There was talk of signing the former MVP to a $200 million extension. Even with his strong understanding with Daryl Morey from their Houston days, there surely can be no way the Philadelphia 76ers President of Basketball Operations plows that amount of money into a player who looks a shadow of his former self.

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NBA insider Chris Haynes joins the Inside The NBA panel to discuss why James Harden's time at the Brooklyn Nets had to come to an end

It's becoming clearer and clearer why the Brooklyn Nets were happy to trade him. He does have the option though.

"I'll be here," Harden said, when asked about next season. "We're going to to try and win a championship. So just continue to build, us individually continue to get better. Us, as a unit, continue to get to know each other, find out what works and doesn't work, things like that.

"Whatever makes this team, whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level."

Will Rivers continue as coach?

What about coach Rivers though? When Harden was asked whether the coach calls plays to get the ball to him, after saying that the reason for his lack of shot attempts was due to the ball not reaching him, he stonewalled the reporter.

"Next question."

Perhaps he has an issue with the coaching when he should be looking closer to home.

Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers on the sideline
Image: Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers on the sideline

For his part, Rivers implored his team to "fight for this!" in the huddle during the fourth. The 76ers just fell flat.

"I came to the conclusion at the end of this game that we were not good enough to beat Miami," Rivers said.

Rivers is signed through the 2024-25 season and another early exit – the 76ers were the No 1 seed last year and lost in the second round – has made his job status is a hot topic of conversation.

"I don't worry about my job. I think I do a terrific job. If you don't, then you should write it," Rivers said. "Because I worked my butt off to get this team here. When I first got here, no one picked us to be anywhere. Again this year, the same thing. If that's how anyone feels, write it. I'm going to feel secure about it."

Keeping Embiid happy

Embiid missed the first two games of the series as he recovered from a concussion and fought through a serious facial injury, an orbital fracture, and a ligament tear in his thumb just to make it onto the court.

"At some point, you've got to stop looking at coaches and the front office," Embiid said. "You've got to look at the players. Maybe we're just not good enough."

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid wipes his face during the second half of Game 5
Image: Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid wipes his face during the second half of Game 5

Embiid deserved better and so did Philly's raucous and loyal fanbase. 'The Process' would have every right to feel aggrieved and he is desperate to win a title in his career. Eventually he may decide to look elsewhere.

His future in Philadelphia looks safe for now but if they can't get it right in the next one or two goes, nobody could blame him for wanting to try and take advantage of his prime at a new destination.

The rush of live NBA Playoffs games continues on Sky Sports this week - see the list of games here and subscribe to watch the live action.

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