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James Harden’s varying brilliance sums up these NBA playoffs perfectly

This is why Sixers president Daryl Morey brought James Harden to Philadelphia, why Doc Rivers sent him a 7-minute gospel song called “You Know My Name” by Tasha Cobbs Leonard prior to the 76ers’ 116-115 overtime Game 4 victory over the Celtics on Sunday afternoon. Harden, at the peak of his powers, is still the devastating scorer that claimed MVP honors under Morey’s previous roster tinkering in Houston and the playmaker Philadelphia brass held out to pair with Joel Embiid during all those months of the 2021-22 season in which Ben Simmons lingered on the trade block.

It didn’t matter that Sacramento, according to league sources, had put future All-Star Tyrese Haliburton on the proverbial table, nor the conversations with Atlanta that would have shed Tobias Harris’ contract along with Simmons’ disinterest in sticking around South Philly. Even when dreamier targets like Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal were floated on the rumor mill, it was Harden whom Morey first attempted to flip Simmons and acquire when the bearded All-Star was exiting the Rockets, and it was Harden whom the Sixers long held atop their wishlist until a deal with Brooklyn ultimately materialized before last February’s trade deadline.

Harden’s 42-point, 8-rebound, 9-assist masterpiece in Game 4, capped by his game-winning 3-pointer in the extra period, helped save this Sixers season — after Harden’s 45 points in Game 1 tied a playoff career-high and secured a critical victory at Boston while Embiid rested a destabilizing knee sprain. And yet, Harden’s no-shows in Games 2 and 3, the quiet outings that urged Rivers to ping Harden’s phone with an inspirational tune as the point guard was en route to Wells Fargo Center, played a large factor in why the Sixers needed him so desperately to claw out of a 2-1 hole against the Celtics. All while the looming threat of Harden’s potential free-agent exit has cast a further degree of all-or-nothing postseason pressure on this Embiid era in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia 76ers' James Harden reacts during the second half of Game 4 in an NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series Boston Celtics, Sunday, May 7, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
The Philadelphia 76ers' James Harden plays to the crowd during the second half of Game 4 in the Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series against the Boston Celtics on Sunday in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Harden’s name and other potential summer targets were often mentioned during Houston’s interview process with head coaching candidates that led to the Rockets landing Ime Udoka, league sources told Yahoo Sports. There are too many NBA figures, from those based in Houston to those who’ve overlapped with Harden throughout his 14-year career, who speak of his possible reunion with the Rockets franchise as a foregone conclusion. And then there are those who think it’s all leverage to hold over the Sixers’ decision-makers. You’ll see Harden bear-hugging Embiid at the Sixers’ team gathering, when the All-NBA center and Philadelphia’s travel party watched his MVP announcement last Tuesday in a hotel ballroom before Game 2. And there Harden was in Game 4, raising an open hand to a delirious Philadelphia crowd, egging their cheers to grow louder and louder, as he shouldered a Sixers offense that — outside of Harden and Embiid shockingly included — appeared to want nothing to do with shooting during those crunchtime possessions against the charging Celtics, with the death knell of a 3-1 series deficit hanging in the balance.

Devin Booker’s flamethrowing in Phoenix and Jimmy Butler’s dogged effort for Miami have both presented strong cases for these playoffs’ most impactful performances. Harden’s character arc may be the most compelling of any high-billing talent still left in this wide-open race for the NBA championship, where his past, present and future selves are all seemingly on full display. His own postseason ghosts follow him wherever he yo-yo dribbles, yet his history of offensive eruption still sparks fear and confidence that Harden can quake at any moment. Each game is a rare instance that feels like watching an old contest on YouTube or a backlogged television show episode, knowing the fateful stakes on the horizon as the plot unfolds in real time.

Harden’s purported interest in rejoining Houston first surfaced when he was still part of Brooklyn’s Big Three with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, with Nets officials growing keen on his wandering eye for Philadelphia as much as the speculation he could one day push for a return to Texas. Take any snapshot from this series against Boston, and an unknowing observer could feasibly claim Harden was either checked out of the battle, or he or she could also pick another that suggests Harden is willing to do whatever it takes to claim his first title, alongside Embiid and Embiid alone, in front of these Philadelphia fans, where he sacrificed notable salary to create the financial wiggle room to add the likes of P.J. Tucker and other support.

In the Sixers’ two wins against the Celtics, Harden has combined for 87 points on 62% shooting from the field, including 13-of-23 from beyond the arc, while his output in Philadelphia’s pair of losses totaled just 28 points on 18% shooting and a dismal 2-of-13 from distance.

After a brutal Game 3 effort, Harden spoke to reporters at his locker for just a handful of questions, demurring with brief answers. His news conferences following victories have been downright jovial, with Harden scrolling through two phones Sunday to find the exact song Rivers messaged his way while wearing a black, fuzzy bucket hat with “WAR” stitched in pink bubble letters. If you ignore the noise and you shine a spotlight onto his peaks instead of his valleys, Harden is billing as Embiid’s greatest co-star yet, and the true lifeblood of a scoring attack that harbors legitimate championship upside.

The fact we, and Boston, can witness either side of this bearded ball-handler, on any given night at any given moment, has provided enough variance to leave a Philadelphia supporter with anxious pangs about this current playoff run and the future beyond. Harden can instill the utmost confidence that this version of the Sixers starring Embiid can achieve the ceiling no iteration has before. Perhaps that vicious swing of the scale is what the playoffs, what the entertainment value of the modern NBA and its dizzying player movement, is really, truly all about.