76ers’ James Harden shows what we got too little of with Nets

Years will pass and feelings will calcify, and after a while there’s a good possibility that the one thing we’ll remember about James Harden is this: he didn’t want to be here. Or, more precisely, he stopped wanting to be here.

And what will be lost in that translation is a shame.

Because when Harden was in Brooklyn, and when he was both fully engaged and fully healthy, we saw plenty of what we saw Sunday, when he collected a triple-double in a 125-109 76ers win over the Knicks that he made look as easy as spilling a cup of Gatorade.

“He’s an amazing ballplayer,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “Period.”

He is, of course, and he was for the Nets. It was Harden who always looked like he got the biggest kick out of being paired with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Harden who acted like a kid in a candy store when he had his two wingmen with him. It just didn’t happen all that often. The one time it did this season, in a 138-112 obliteration of the Bulls in Chicago in January, Harden sounded downright smitten afterward.

“We’re that good,” Harden said that night. “We have a chance to be that good. We just haven’t had enough of it.”

On Sunday, with his new team, a new set of toys, Harden seemed equally giddy. He’d just scored 29 points (on only 14 shots), added 16 assists and 10 rebounds, and spent the better part of a blissful afternoon feeding the ball to Joel Embiid, who scored 37.

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James Harden
AP

“I was out there winging it,” said Harden, who’s only got two or three plays under his belt and spent the rest of the day making it up as he went along, an improv artist at the top of his game. “But I feel very comfortable.”

We still haven’t seen the full extent of this trade, won’t until Ben Simmons takes the floor for the Nets and is able to integrate himself with Durant and Irving. So all we see is the Sixers’ half. But so far it’s hard not to like what they look like. Embiid is the likely MVP and now he has a fully engaged wingman.

And Harden seems more engaged than he has since last year, when the wheels started spinning off in Brooklyn.

“He’s such a great passer, someone else who can draw a lot of attention,” Embiid said. “Teams have to decide whether they want to stay on me or stay on him and if they decide to stay with both of us it opens it up for everyone else, too.”

The Knicks this day, as on most days lately, were mere foils for the Sixers as they officially retreated a little deeper into their sinkhole. In truth, the 76ers seemed actually somewhat appreciative of the effort the Knicks gave, and the fact that they actually led 98-95 with under 10 minutes to go.

“They made us really think and figure things out on the fly,” Rivers said. “James did a good job orchestrating where we needed to be.”

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James Harden shoots the ball against the Knicks on Sunday.
Getty Images

Harden hit a 28-foot 3 to tie the game at 98 and two free throws to put the Sixers up 100-98, and they never trailed again. From there he just kept finding Embiid, who just kept wearing out every big man the Knicks threw at him, fouling out both Mitch Robinson and Jericho Sims, hitting 24 out of 27 from the foul line, the most free-throw attempts by anyone in three years.

“We have a long way to go,” Harden said. “This is game two for me but I like the direction we’re heading in.”

Said Embiid: “I didn’t even think I played all that well. I can’t believe what’s going to happen when we put it all together.”

We can believe it. We saw it. It came in spurts and spasms, but when Harden was at his best in Brooklyn, flanked by his fellow stars, it was something to behold. The memory of that will regress as the years pass, and it will be replaced by the memory of how it went south, and how he came to leave. But nobody ever said it wasn’t fun while it lasted.

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