Harris just got to the heart of the matter when asked about James Harden’s 31-point night, including 16 of the Sixers’ 27 points in the decisive fourth quarter.
“What we need him to do on a nightly basis is what he does,” Harris said in a raspy voice. “Just be solid for us and pick up on the defense of how they’re playing him.”
This is the new vision for James Harden.
He doesn’t need to reprise his 2018 MVP form for the Sixers to win.
He doesn’t need to fill up the box score or hit game-ending clutch shots. He doesn’t even need to take 20 shots, which used to be a low number for him.
Harden took just 18 shots in Game 4, but it was plenty because he scored or assisted on 54 of the 98 points (55%) the Sixers scored while he was on the court.
This version of James Harden, the 32-year-old one the Sixers traded for in February with the idea of forging a long-term partnership, just needs to be solid and organize the team’s offense based on how the defense is playing him.
Joel Embiid (24 points, 11 rebounds) can do the rest. Harris (13 points, four assists) and Tyrese Maxey (18 points, four assists) can fill in the scoring and playmaking gaps. Danny Green can space the floor (11 points on 3-for-4 shooting from 3).
But Harden has to be the quarterback.
“He does a great job of evaluating the game,” Harris said. “Of where he can make plays, where he can take his shots. Tonight he got going. You could see the confidence in him of getting downhill first, and then the 3-ball opened it up for him.
“He sees so many defensive coverages out there. A lot of times they zone up the court as well, so sometimes it’s tough for him to be extremely aggressive on the offensive end. But when he’s in a groove like [Sunday night]we just get him the ball and keep it going.”
The Heat have pressured Harden throughout this series by denying him space to operate, especially when Embiid is not on the court.
In the first two games, which Embiid missed with a concussion and a broken orbital bone, Miami swarmed Harden with multiple defenders or threw a zone at him to muck up the Sixers’ offense.
According to Second Spectrum, the average closest defender to Harden in Game 1 was 3.7 feet. In Game 2 it was down to 3.1 feet, the closest in any game he has played in the past three seasons.
In Game 3, when Embiid returned to the lineup, the difference was even more pronounced. With Embiid on the court Miami gave Harden 3.7 feet, but just 2.6 feet when Embiid was off it.