2022 Playoffs: East Semifinal | Heat (1) vs. 76ers (4)

With or without Joel Embiid, James Harden remains under the spotlight

James Harden is not playing like the Kia MVP-winning player he once was. If he can't, can he adapt?

James Harden’s return to No. 1 option for his team has not gone as smoothly as it did in the past.

• Complete Heat-76ers series coverage

Down 2-0 in their conference semifinals series against the Miami Heat, the Philadelphia 76ers are now 6-10 (regular season and playoffs) without Joel Embiid, who’s listed as “out” for Game 3 on Friday (7 ET, ESPN).

One of those six wins did come (at home on March 21) against the Heat. But in the regular season, Embiid had the 11th biggest on-off differential among 261 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team, with the Sixers 11.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (plus-7.9) than they were with him off the floor (minus-3.6). In the first round against Toronto, that differential was 10.2 points per 100 possessions (and mostly about defense).

While they haven’t had their Kia MVP finalist, the Sixers have had a former MVP for the first two games. But James Harden has averaged just 18.0 points on a true shooting percentage of 54.8% (13th among 20 players with at least 25 field goal attempts in this round), obviously not playing at an MVP level.

The Heat’s defense is partially responsible. As illustrated in this space after Game 1, they’re either double-teaming Harden (they triple-teamed him at one point in Game 2) or at least shading toward him with extra defenders. One of TNT’s Inside Tracks segments on Wednesday had Heat coach Erik Spoelstra telling his team that he wanted Harden “to see that wall.”

Even off the ball, the Heat are face-guarding Harden and allowing the other Sixers to play four-on-four…

P.J. Tucker defense on James Harden

Iso issues

But (stating the obvious here) Harden is also not the same player he once was. His MVP season came with a record for isolation efficiency; the 1.22 points per possession Harden scored in 2017-18 were the highest mark for any player with at least 100 isolation possessions in the 18 seasons of Synergy play-type tracking. He followed that up with two more years of strong efficiency (1.11 and 1.13 ppp) on ridiculous volume. His ’18-19 and ’19-20 seasons account for the first and third most isolation possessions for any player in those 18 seasons…

Most isolation possessions, single season, since 2004-05 (points per possession), via Synergy

  1. James Harden – 2018-19 – 1,278 (1.11)
  2. Kobe Bryant – 2005-06 – 998 (0.93)
  3. James Harden – 2019-20 – 958 (1.13)
  4. Kobe Bryant – 2006-07 – 891 (1.08)
  5. Allen Iverson – 2005-06 – 729 (0.96)

Harden’s iso volume dropped with his move to Brooklyn last season, but his efficiency remained high: 1.08 points per possession in ’20-21, 1.24 in last year’s playoffs, and 1.06 (with Brooklyn and Philly) this season. The man could still get a bucket (or get fouled) playing one-on-one.

In these playoffs, Harden’s iso efficiency has dipped under a point per possession for the first time since the 2015-16 season. He’s scored just 64 points on 71 iso possessions (0.90 per), according to Synergy. That’s not terrible (it’s tied with Giannis Antetokounmpo), but it’s not at the level we’re used to from the iso king. Those 71 possessions are 21 more than anybody else has in this postseason through Thursday.

Both Harden’s effective field goal percentage and his free throw rate on isolations are down from the regular season. His turnover rate is up.

The film

Facing a crowd of defenders in this series, Harden has often made the right play, only to see his teammates miss open shots. In the regular season, Sixers teammates shot 91-for-224 (41%) from 3-point range off Harden’s passes. In the first round, they shot 24-for-52 (46%). And in this series, they’re 4-for-18 (22%). (They’ve even missed dunks off his passes.)

The Sixers are 4-for-20 (20%) on wide-open 3s in this conference semis, while each of the other seven teams have shot no worse than the Heat’s 37%.

So you can understand why Harden might force a drive into a crowd…

James Harden turnover


P.J. Tucker has been Harden’s initial defender, but the Heat have have willingly abandoned that matchup by switching screens. While Tucker has defended Harden for almost twice as many partial possessions as any other Miami defender, Harden has taken only four of his 28 shots with Tucker on him.

And Harden has been able to get by other defenders, only to be met at the rim…

James Harden drive


(Matisse Thybulle was wide open in the strong-side corner on that play, but has made just two 3-pointers in 79 playoff minutes.)

Harden has also had a tough time finishing away from the rim. He’s 4-for-24 (17%) on non-restricted-area shots in the paint in the playoffs. He shook off Victor Oladipo early in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, only to leave a 13-foot jumper short…

James Harden short jumper

Robin without his Batman

Harden is also (and obviously) missing Embiid. In the regular season, the Sixers scored 1.12 points per chance when Embiid set a ball screen for Harden, according to Second Spectrum tracking. That was the third best mark among 93 combinations with at least 200 total ball screens (Seth Curry and Embiid had the fourth best mark).

In the playoffs, they’ve scored 1.30 points per chance with that screening combination, the best mark among 25 pairings with at least 25 ball screens.

If Embiid were available, the Heat would have much tougher decisions to make on those ball-screens and would probably pay more for showing Harden that wall.

Can Harden be complementary?

Tyrese Maxey (34 points in Game 2) and Tobias Harris (averaging 24 points on 57% shooting) have played well offensively in this series. They both can act as initiators in the offense, and the Sixers did have Maxey handling the ball a lot more in the fourth quarter of Game 2. But, whether Embiid is healthy or not, it’s not clear if Harden can be effective off the ball.

In eight playoff games, he’s attempted just nine catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, fewer than Embiid (who’s a center) has attempted in six games. As noted above, Harden’s defender is often ignoring what’s going on elsewhere and just denying him the ball (though some movement might help in that regard). But a Maxey drive on Wednesday set Harden up for a clean catch-and-shoot look…

James Harden catch-and-shoot opportunity

… and he passed it up.

And while Maxey can be a great (and very willing) second-side option, Harden doesn’t seem to be wired like that, more likely to stop the ball than quickly attack a seam in the defense.

Given the way the Heat are defending him and his struggles in getting to the basket or the free throw line, it seems doubtful that we’re going to get a big game from James Harden in this series. And given Embiid’s absence, it’s fair to start wondering about where the former MVP’s game goes after this season.

Can he return to form? And if not, is he willing to evolve?

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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