After a brilliant 45-point Game 1 against the Boston Celtics without Joel Embiid , it appeared that James Harden was ready to put his ignominious playoff reputation behind him. Following a nine-point dud in the Philadelphia 76ers' 112-88 Game 7 elimination at the hands of the Celtics, that reputation is very much still intact.
Harden went 3 for 11 from the field on Sunday afternoon, including 1-for-5 3-point shooting, dishing out seven assists while committing five turnovers. In eight minutes during the fourth quarter, Harden took just one shot and had one assist. You might be able to give him a pass since the game was already pretty much out of reach at that point, but it continued an ugly streak of late-game disappearing acts for Harden.
Over the fourth quarters of the final three games of the conference semifinal series against the Celtics, Harden scored zero points in 32 minutes. Yes, you read that correctly. James Harden, who has the 25th-most points in NBA history, failed to score a single point in the fourth quarter of the three most crucial games of the series.
|Harden 4Q vs. Boston||MIN||PTS||FG||AST|
Game 1 (Win)
Game 2 (Loss)
Game 3 (Loss)
Game 4 (Win)
Game 5 (Win)
Game 6 (Loss)
Game 7 (Loss)
Harden took just six shots in the fourth quarters of Games 5-7, fewer than he took in the final frame of Game 1 alone. Scoring isn't the only way that he can affect the game, but he also only had two total assists in the fourth quarters of Games 6 and 7. This comes a year after Harden went scoreless and attempted just one field goal in the fourth quarter of an elimination game against the Miami Heat.
"James in particular, I thought he was trying to do the right things tonight," 76ers coach Doc Rivers said after the loss. "I really did."
The performance hearkens back to Ben Simmons' infamous 2021 conference semifinal performance against the Atlanta Hawks, when he was criticized for his lack of assertiveness in the fourth quarter. He was outright blamed by Joel Embiid for turning the tide of Game 7 in Atlanta's direction when he passed up an opportunity at the rim, instead dishing to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and made one out of two free throws.
Simmons' fourth quarters got a lot of attention, and for good reason. He didn't attempt a single field goal in the fourth quarters of Games 5-7. But despite not putting up a shot, Simmons was still more productive than Harden in the fourth quarters of the final three games of their respective conference semifinal series -- Simmons scored five points by virtue of 10 free throw attempts while Harden didn't shoot a free throw and missed all six of his field goal attempts. Simmons was minus-10 over that stretch. Harden was minus-21.
Harden's Game 1 performance was transcendent, powering the 76ers to an upset victory to steal home court advantage. But nobody's saying Harden can't play well in the playoffs. His track record shows, however, that the production is severely limited in the most important postseason games of his career. Putting up zero points in the fourth quarters of the most important games of the series as his team was eliminated only continues that alarming trend.
Harden notably took a salary cut to allow Philadelphia flexibility last offseason, and now he has the ability to opt out of his contract and enter free agency. Rumors have circled about a potential return to the Houston Rockets this summer, and after Game 7 Harden said his relationship with Rivers is "OK" and that he just wants to have "a chance to compete" wherever he ends up.
No matter where he goes, Harden's lack of production down the stretch against the Celtics certainly makes the decision from both him and the 76ers one of the more captivating offseason NBA storylines.
"I think he overall enjoyed being here," Rivers said of Harden after the Game 7 loss. "You know, it's tough for him. We asked him to play a little different than he's always been accustomed to. I think it made us a better team. And unfortunately, I thought, for James at times, it wasn't always best for him. But he still did it. And so, you know, you appreciate that as a coach."