James Harden finds his rhythm again

James Harden NBA

The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Miami Heat 116-108 in Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Sunday, tying the series 2-2.

James Harden, who has been under heavy criticism for his underperformance since he was traded to the 76ers in February, had his best game in the playoffs this season with 31 points, seven rebounds and nine assists on Sunday. 16 of those points were scored in the final quarter, during which he made four triples.

Lack of explosiveness has been holding Harden back from dominating the offensive front for the whole season. That didn’t change in Game 4, in which he shot 2-of-8 in the paint. The differences happened from downtown, where he made six of 10 field goals (FGs) and in his grasping of opportunities for penetration. Whenever Tyler Herro, a weak link of the Heat’s defensive line, switched to guard Harden, he spared no effort to charge in and at least finished the attack with free throws, in which he shot 9-for-10.

Harden’s liberation benefited from Joel Embiid’s presence on the court. The Heat had to keep most of their defensive attention on Embiid by trying to deny him the ball first and then surrounding him immediately after he got the ball in the paint. Despite that, Embiid still had a double-double of 24 points and 11 rebounds after drawing nine fouls from the Heat’s players.

The rest of the 76ers took advantage of Harden and Embiid’s destraction to make offensive contributions as well. Danny Green and George Niang combined five 3-pointers. Tobias Harris kept cutting into the Heat’s defensive vacuum under the hoop and made three jumpers in the middle range. Tyrese Maxey punched the Heat several times in the ribs via penetration from the weak side.

By contrast, the Heat, which are supposed to have more players who can deal with the ball and launch an attack, found their offensive sources continue to dry out in Sunday’s game. Victor Oladipo and Herro combined 2-for-10 at the 3-point line. Kyle Lowry got only six points. Duncan Robinson was already ruled out for Game 4.

Bam Adebayo did much better in both scoring (21 points) and efficiency (hitting 9-of-12 from the field) than he did in the lost Game 3, but Jimmy Butler was the most solid spine of the Heat on the offensive front. Though he was not productive behind the arc, Butler was unstoppable within the key where he made 11 of his 14 attempts. If he hadn’t scored 40 points at a 65-percent FG rate, Sunday’s loss could have been much more painful for the Heat.

The Heat are in a difficult situation. They tried their best to contain Embiid, but he still managed to get 20+points double-double, not to mention that the team has no extra strength to deal with Maxey, Harris and a recovering Harden. Offensively, the Heat’s shooters fail to stretch the spacing, which encourages the 76ers to stick to zone defense surrounding Embiid. Butler is playing almost as well as he did in the bubble in 2020, but the team still lost the past two games.

As for the 76ers, they have found the winning formula. Neither Harden nor Embiid will be completely comfortable facing the defense of the Heat in this series. However, as long as they are capable of making the opponents suffer more than they do, the 76ers have a better chance to advance to the Eastern Finals.

The last time they made it that far in the postseason was in the 2000-21 season, during which Allen Iverson made an epic individual performance.

Game 5 will take place at FTX Center in Miami on May 10.