BOSTON — On the night Joel Embiid sunk a game-winning jumper against the Trail Blazers, James Harden’s teammates heaped praise on him for getting out of the way.
Harden improvised to vacate the middle of the floor on March 10 and let Embiid do his thing.
“I’m not robotic out there. … It’s just basketball common sense,” Harden said of the read. “You’ve got to think the game. It’s not good enough to just run around and jump and shoot threes; you’ve got to think the game of basketball.”
Harden’s present-centered style was at the core of his performance Monday night. With Embiid sidelined by a right knee sprain, Harden tied his playoff career high by scoring 45 points in a stirring Sixers victory at TD Garden to begin their second-round playoff series against the Celtics. The final three were a go-ahead jumper over Al Horford with 8.4 seconds remaining.
“I think P.J. (Tucker) set the screen, and I came off the screen and was wondering if they were going to put two on the ball,” Harden said. “So when I crossed and pulled the ball back out, they were just like, ‘Stay home, it’s a 1-on-1.’ I’m looking up and I’m like, ‘All right, this is what I work on every day.’ So get the best available shot, no matter what it is. Raise up and shoot it.”
For much of Harden’s NBA career, “scoring machine” was a popular and perfectly appropriate label. He averaged 29.6 points over his 621 games as a Houston Rocket, led the league in scoring three times, and leaned on three-pointers, layups and free throws to find efficient solutions against every defensive coverage invented.
Since joining the Sixers, the 33-year-old Harden has partnered with assistant coach Sam Cassell, who made his one All-Star game at 34 years old and was especially adept in the mid-range.
Cassell will tell you he’s “not an analytics guy” and that the mid-range jumper is alive and well in big games. Harden has called him “a mentor” and said in October the two had worked on “having a variety, a package of things that you can go to. Not being so predictable. For me, just trying to keep the defense on their heels.”
Harden showed the Celtics that side of his game right away. His first three shots were mid-range jumpers and he made all of them. When Horford was parked in the paint, the mid-range made sense.
Recognizing Robert Williams III in deep drop coverage, Harden hit an important step-back jumper from the elbow early in the fourth quarter, too.
“Just taking the best available shot,” Harden said. “Whatever they gave me, I just rose up and took the shot — whether it’s a three, whether it’s a floater, whether it’s a mid-range jumper. And (the mid-range) is something that I’ve been working on throughout the course of the year.”
Late in many games this season, the Sixers’ offensive identity has essentially been believing that Embiid will carry them to the finish line.
That’s how they felt Monday about Harden, who canned 3 of his 4 long-range tries in the fourth period. Earlier in the evening, he’d passed Ray Allen for fourth in NBA playoff history in made threes.
“In the fourth quarter, we always know James is going to come up with something,” De’Anthony Melton said. “So we’re real confident. Especially when big fella went down, he had to step up.
“I think he’s always done that throughout the year. He doesn’t get enough credit for his leadership and for his fourth-quarter performances. We’ve got faith in him. We understand he’s going to make the right play for us and take us to victory.”
By the time he took that final shot over Horford, it felt inevitable that Harden would be present in the moment and handle it like a very skilled, very confident human.
“I haven’t felt one of those zones in a minute, and it felt really good just to be aggressive and shoot the basketball and do what I want,” he said with a laugh. “That felt really good. And I’m capable of doing it.
“It felt good to make shots, to give ourselves a chance on the road in Game 1, and to be aggressive. I mean, we won. That’s all that matters. I’m happy.”