James Harden took two shots in the second half Thursday night and missed both of them.
His final attempt in the Sixers’ season-ending Game 6 loss to the Heat was a three-pointer with 1:31 left and his team down by 12 points. He subbed out 23 seconds later and watched the bitter final seconds of his first season as a Sixer from the sidelines.
The three-time scoring champion didn’t have much to add on his performance.
“We ran our offense,” he said. “I feel like the ball moved and it just didn’t get back to me.”
Excluding Game 1 of the Nets’ second-round series with the Bucks last year, when Harden exited after 43 seconds with a right hamstring injury, Thursday’s game was his first playoff contest with no free-throw attempts since 2016. He’d never played as much in the postseason as in Game 6 (42 minutes and 59 seconds) and finished with no foul shots.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers didn’t want to fixate on Harden or single any player out as most culpable for his team's second straight Round 2 exit.
“Listen, I’m not going to make this a referendum on James,” Rivers said. “We just could’ve played better. The ball could’ve moved more. Did we have enough time to get our stuff in? I don’t know that. I thought we did, honestly. I really did. But clearly, we didn’t.”
Counting the playoffs, Harden played 33 games with the Sixers following the February deal that finally fulfilled Ben Simmons’ trade request and sent the 10-time All-Star from Brooklyn to Philadelphia.
There were brilliant flashes, enticing suggestions that the Sixers might make it all work and break through the daunting second-round barrier. Still, it rarely appeared the team had anything especially reliable in difficult situations besides Joel Embiid being great. And the MVP runner-up was well below his best physically during the playoffs, suffering a torn ligament in his right thumb, a concussion, and a right orbital fracture. Embiid said Thursday night his current expectation is he’ll require offseason surgery on his thumb and that the orbital fracture should heal without surgery.
Those Embiid injuries diminished the chances of the pieces clicking into place, even if moments like Harden’s 16-point fourth quarter in Game 4 against Miami provided occasional bursts of hope.
“Man, for me personally, it’s been a long year,” Harden said. “But since I’ve been here, it’s been great. We’re trying to build something so fast. We’re trying to build a championship contender team so fast — which I still think we are, we’re just missing a few pieces. But other than that, we tried to go for it right away. We just came up a little short. … We’ve still got to put work in and continue to keep going.”
At his introductory press conference, Harden said he planned to exercise his player option of approximately $47.4 million for next season. He was asked whether that’s still the case.
“I’ll be here, yeah,” he said. “Whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better, and (to) do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level.”
If Harden picked up his option and then signed an extension, he’d be eligible to make almost $275 million in a contract lasting through the 2026-27 season.
Would he be willing to take less than the max?
“Whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow and put us up there with the best of them,” he said.
The most optimistic projection for Harden’s future involves improved chemistry with core pieces like Embiid and Tyrese Maxey; meaningful development from in-house role players (Paul Reed becoming a stretch five at the NBA level, for instance); and savvy decision-making by Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey.
But Harden’s health is paramount. He played through a Grade 2 right hamstring strain last postseason. This year, he waited until after the All-Star break to debut for the Sixers because of left hamstring tightness.
“Honestly, it’s been a long two years for me,” he said. “I’m finally starting to kind of feel OK again. It’ll be a great summer for me to get my body right and be ready to go for next year. These last two years have been a whirlwind, though.”
Harden will turn 33 years old in August.
“I’m excited, man,” he said of the upcoming offseason. “I’ve been trying to get right throughout the course of a basketball season for two years straight. That’s not it. All last summer I was rehabbing and it was a little frustrating, because I’m not used to going through something like that.
“But it is what is. I’m just happy to be healthy now. I’ve got a full summer to be straight and to do the things necessary to come back even better next year.”