As one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers, James Harden has maintained confidence he can score on any defender. Or at least draw a whistle to ensure a trip to the free-throw line.
But does Harden have the same confidence level about his durability?
“I think it’s heading in the right direction,” Harden said following the Sixers’ 122-97 win over the LA Clippers on Friday. “I just got to keep chipping away.”
Before Friday’s game, Sixers coach Doc Rivers described Harden as feeling “much better” since sitting for five games after Philadelphia acquired him. Nonetheless, Rivers conceded that “he’s still not there.”
“He’s still a work in progress,” Rivers said. “We got three weeks. We really feel by that time that he’ll be there 100 per cent.”
Then, the Sixers will begin the NBA playoffs and have clarity on an emerging question ever since they acquired Harden from Brooklyn. After trading a disgruntled All-Star (Ben Simmons), a dependable shooter (Seth Curry) and a backup center (Andre Drummond), can the Sixers lean on Harden to help them win an NBA championship just over a year after experiencing a second-round playoff exit?
The answer to that question partly depends on how well Harden complements the Sixers’ regular-season MVP candidate (Joel Embiid) and complementary players (Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle).
In the Sixers’ win over the Clippers, Harden offered a blend of scoring (29 points), rebounding (a season-high 15) and playmaking (seven assists) to ensure that Embiid (27 points), Thybulle (13), Harris (12) and Maxey (11) also cracked double figures. Nonetheless, Rivers said that Harden has shown his dominance in spurts. Harden conceded he has played “inconsistently aggressive”.
“Good picture, it’s going great because they want to do it. So that’s great. As far as doing it well, we’re up and down,” Rivers said. “The willing part is always key to me. It always is. You get two guys that want to get it right, then you’ll get it right.”
But the answer to that question also hinges significantly on Harden’s health. Less than a year ago, he missed Games 2 through 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with Brooklyn against the Milwaukee Bucks after injuring his right hamstring only 43 seconds into Game 1. Harden also missed 21 of the Nets’ 24 final regular-season games with a strained right hamstring.
It’s no surprise that the Sixers’ medical staff has talked to Harden extensively about his injury history. That includes Simon Rice, the vice president of Athlete Care and author of a handful of books on hamstring injuries.
“Whatever they got for me, coming up with a plan and then executing that plan,” Harden said. “At the same time, trying to figure out on the court how to make it work and how to figure out each individual and how can I put my imprint on every single game. All of that goes into one basket – obviously making sure your body is right and then going out there and being the best James Harden I can be.”
For Harden to become the best version of himself, the Sixers have asked him to change his routine.
“The big thing with James is once he’s had those injuries, you can tell he doesn’t want to play at top speed because that’s how you’ll hurt it,” Rivers said. “Simon’s philosophy is the exact opposite. To get him playing at that speed, you condition the hamstring to be able to play at that speed.”
Since then, Rivers observed that “James has bought into him 100 per cent”. Rivers reported that Harden has completed full-court sprints at practices.
“That probably hurts him for the game,” Rivers said. “But we’re not worried about the game as much as we’re worried about being ready for the playoffs.”
Before Harden’s hamstring issues in the past year, he appeared remarkably durable. For five consecutive seasons (2014-19), he had missed only a combined 16 regular-season games through various ailments. But even through 10 All-Star appearances and three league scoring records, Harden appeared to wear down in the playoffs.
Consider the difference in Harden’s regular-season and playoff performances:
Harden scoring drop-off from regular season to playoffs
- 2020-21: From 24.6 ppg to 20.2 ppg
- 2019-20: From 34.3 ppg to 29.6 ppg
- 2018-19: From 36.1 ppg to 31.6 ppg
- 2017-18: From 30.4 ppg to 28.6 ppg
- 2016-17: From 29.1 ppg to 28.5 ppg
Some of those issues also point to injuries to former teammates Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, but Harden’s own health has been a factor lately. Nonetheless, the Sixers do not see the 32-year-old Harden fighting Father Time just yet.
“His miles per hour has increased,” Rivers said. “He’s already over the level. He’s almost back to the levels of Houston as far as his miles per hour per game. He’s reached his top speed he hasn’t reached in two years. He’s already back there.”
Will that be enough?
Following Harden’s return, he missed two other games for injury maintenance purposes. He appeared in pain after getting kneed in his right quad during Wednesday’s game against the Lakers, an incident that prompted him to leave the game briefly. Afterward, Harden described his quad as “a little sore” before adding, “I feel like I was getting beat up.” Still, both Rivers and Harden reported the injury did not carry over during the team’s day off on Thursday. Following the Sixers’ win over the Clippers, Harden appeared comfortable both with his eclectic wardrobe and the state of his body.
“I feel good,” Harden said. “I feel good.”
Harden and the Sixers will soon find out whether he feels the same way during their playoff run.
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