Pressure is on James Harden with Joel Embiid injury

Compared to Ben Simmons, James Harden was magical.

Compared to the Harden of yore, “The Beard” has shown his age – he no longer looks like the max-like player who earned him the 2018 MVP and three scoring titles.

Whether it’s his pesky left hamstring or he’s still adjusting to his new teammates in Philly, 32-year-old Harden wasn’t the scoring machine he was in Houston, where he was known as basketball’s top isolation scorer.

Now, Harden must be the guy with superstar center Joel Embiid who’s expected to miss at least the first two games of the 76ers’ second-round series against The Heat, which begins Monday night in Miami. Embiid is on the concussion log and has also been diagnosed with a fractured orbital bone.

If Harden flops at that stage, it will be interesting to see if the Sixers are willing to give Harden the maximum contract if he becomes a free agent in July.

Yes, that’s how hard the powerful fell after Harden squeezed his way out of two franchises in Houston and Brooklyn in the span of 13 months. Even by NBA diva standards, that’s a lot of upset.

“He made his bed, now he has to sleep in it,” an NBA executive told the Post. “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. He’s a Heckuva player, but even in Houston he couldn’t get over that hump.”

76ers guard James Harden (1) goes to a dunk against the Raptors on April 28, 2022.
76ers guard James Harden (1) goes to a dunk against the Raptors on April 28, 2022.
NBAE via Getty Images

Ringless Harden, who sometimes struggled in the Rockets’ biggest playoff moments, has posted solid numbers — just not superstar numbers.

After the Nets-Sixers trade, Harden played in 21 games, averaging 21 points, but shooting just 40.2 percent from the field — 32.6 percent from 3. He was a tone distributor on a stacked team with Embiid, Tobias Harris and a rising star in Tyrese Maxey.

In the six-game first-round win over the Raptors, Harden put up satisfying numbers — 19 points and 10.2 assists per game, but he made 3.5 turnovers and averaged just 40.5 percent.

“He’s still a Heckuva player, but he wasn’t healthy or committed enough to be who he used to be,” the manager said. “I think he’s capable of carrying the team and even leading them to win a game but from what I’ve seen this year I’m not sure he’s physically capable of that over a streak to do constantly.”

Harden was overweight during the 2020-21 season, which he spent mostly with the Nets, which likely led to the hamstring problems that weakened him on his return in the playoffs against the Bucks. Admittedly playing on one leg, Harden shot 5 of 17 in the overtime loss of Game 7 when coach Steve Nash unwisely played him every 53 minutes.

After being told to rest in the offseason to heal the wear on his hamstring, Harden wasn’t sharp enough or in the best of shape, even with the nets.

Perhaps Embiid’s absence will awaken old Harden. But the analyzes don’t suggest it will be good for the Sixers.

James Harden celebrates in Game 5 against the Raptors.
James Harden celebrates in Game 5 against the Raptors.
NBAE via Getty Images

In the regular season, Philly was outscored at 10.2 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor without Embiid. In the first round against Toronto, the Sixers were minus 6.8 minus Embiid in Harden’s minutes.

So good luck to Harden against Jimmy Butler’s Heat – who completely brought down the Hawks’ Trae Young in the paint.

Harden must continue his once-brilliant isolation game without Embiid. Miami coach Eric Spoelstra paid Harden his due respect.

“He’s definitely changing the dynamic,” Spoelstra told reporters. “You’re talking about an MVP player, a guy who can manipulate the game. He can hurt you whether he scores, whether he assists or whether he just manipulates the defense.”

Of course, the Sixers are better off with Harden than Seth Curry and Simmons, the latter of whom was never suitable for the Nets because of his mental health and back problems.

Harden is expected to finish his final 2022-23 season at $47 million. He could land a potential $270 million maximum deal this summer. But much will depend on whether “The Beard” can have a repeat streak against Miami. Pressure is on James Harden with Joel Embiid injury


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