Harden seeing strong early returns on work to be less predictable player


James Harden has heard the talk that he’s not the player he was during a prime full of devastating step-back three-pointers and unparalleled offensive production.

At the start of his 14th NBA season, he’s shown there’s perhaps a positive, unexpected side of that. 

Harden went 6 for 7 on mid-range jumpers Thursday in the Sixers’ 90-88 home opener defeat to the Bucks. Through the Sixers’ two losses, he’s averaged 33.0 points, 8.0 assists and 8.0 rebounds. 

“I’ve been working on my game this summer,” Harden said after scoring 31 points on a night he only took four free throws. “I just took what the defense gave me. I had a couple of threes that I missed, but I can’t control it. You put the work in and you live with the results. Tonight, they gave me mid-range shots and I took them.”

The final shot of Harden’s evening was disappointing. He drove in search of a game-winning hoop, absorbed contact from Jrue Holiday around the left block, and then tossed up a runner that didn’t drop. 

“It wasn’t a great look, it was a good look,” Harden said. “Could’ve been better. I could’ve taken my time a little bit more. I think I had a little bit more time. Could’ve made a second move and gotten a better shot, but I’ll take it.”

That miss isn’t the story of the 33-year-old’s first two games, though. He was brilliant in the Sixers’ opening-night loss to Boston by leaning on that famous step-back and by drawing 12 free throws. On Thursday, with the Bucks shifting to a defensive philosophy this year that cares much more about limiting three-pointers than in recent seasons, there were soft spots in the mid-range for both of the Sixers’ stars. 

Joel Embiid had a woeful shooting night (6 for 21 from the field), but Harden was clearly comfortable anywhere on the floor. 

The physicality, slick deceleration and bucket-getting knowhow that help Harden beyond the arc are also nice tools inside of it. 

He enjoys the process of fine-tuning his game. After being severely limited by his hamstring the prior offseason, Harden got to dive back into things this summer. Sixers assistant coach Sam Cassell, an exceptionally smooth mid-range operator in his playing days, worked with Harden on expanding his arsenal. 

“Just a mentor, man,” Harden said of Cassell. “Sam, he had a really good career, and obviously he was known for the mid-range. Just giving the defenses different looks — 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. 

“Obviously Jrue Holiday was picking me up for four quarters the entire game and really didn’t want to switch off on me. But just finding ways to pick teams apart, man. Just trying to make the right decision, the easy play, and not turn the ball over. We’ve just got to be better as a unit and we will be.”

Even during the season, Cassell is not just a ball-feeder for Harden when the 10-time All-Star puts up jumpers after shootarounds and practices. Cassell will talk the occasional piece of trash, and he doesn’t mind pausing the action to offer thoughts on the balance of Harden’s side-step threes or the timing on his drives into floaters. 

While Harden won’t sustain his current 87.5 percent pace on mid-range shots, his willingness to take them matters — and it was evident in the preseason, too. 

As Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey would tell you, threes and layups tend to be the most efficient shots in basketball, but that’s not true for all players in all situations. And when mid-range jumpers increase defenders' uncertainty about what's next, no one will argue that’s valuable. 

Morey would also be quick to note early-season samples can often wind up worthless. However, Harden’s efforts to diversify his game are encouraging, and the excellent results thus far sure don’t hurt. 

“I’m a workaholic, so not being able to put the work in like I normally do was frustrating,” Harden said. “This summer I had the opportunity to (work) and up to this point, I feel really good. Just continuing to put the work in and living with the results, and that’s what I live by. A lot of people don’t see the work that I put in. This scoring ability and all this other stuff doesn’t come without work. 

“As much as people want to talk about all the other stuff that doesn’t really matter, I’m a workaholic, and I love to be in the gym and I love to play basketball. I’ll continue to do that. But for me, it’s not even about the individual. The individual is great and I’ll do whatever it takes for the betterment of this team, but I think all of us need to be playing at a high level. And I think that’s a part of my job.”

Former Rockets teammate Danuel House Jr. has seen Harden backing up that sentiment. 

“Unselfish,” House said. “He’s being a team player. He’s stressing that we do this together, so he’s not looking to step alone this season. He’s stepping with us and we’re stepping with him.”

Not for the first time, House was part of a successful small-ball unit Thursday that revolved around Harden. The lineup of Harden, De’Anthony Melton, House, Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker was easily the Sixers’ best on the night, outscoring Milwaukee by nine points and leading a big comeback push early in the fourth quarter. 

Unlike lineups involving Paul Reed or Montrezl Harrell, that group has zero players considered non-shooters by opponents. One of the benefits offensively is more room for Harden to break defenders down. 

“We really didn’t have a lot of rolling with that group, we just had the space for us to attack,” Rivers said. “So that’s a good move for us, at least tonight.”

On the topic of movement, Harden might have delivered the quote of the evening.

After a playful exchange with a reporter about the physical strength he showed against the Bucks, Harden gave a brief, blunt explanation.

“Yeah, I can move now,” he said. “I can move.”

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