76ers vs. Raptors: James Harden turns Toronto’s 14-assist defensive script into a turnover in Game 1 win

James Harden is entering his first postseason with the Philadelphia 76ers on, or at least near the edge of, the superstar cliff. Once you go over that ledge it can be a quick fall. Many would argue that Harden has already tipped, that he’s lost his burst and is no longer a top scorer. Maybe that’s true.

But Harden’s game has always been about more than scoring goals. He’s a great all-time passer and I don’t say that lightly. In the Sixers’ blowout win in Saturday’s Game 1 against the Toronto Raptors, Harden threw up 14 assists and created enough open shots for his teammates for that number to surpass 20.

Did he blow past people to the brim? no But he’s gotten his foot in the paint, he’s gained angles, and his vision and ability to deliver pinpoint dimes from the dribble hasn’t faltered one bit despite his reduced separation. Tyrese Maxey’s 38 points and Tobias Harris’ 26 won the box score, but who, direct or indirect, got them a lot of those looks? Harden is still being defended like a superstar. Nevertheless, he attracts attention.

Harden scored 22 points himself, and when he has a run start early offense, he still looks very explosive on the rim and through contact; it’s the stationary dribbling exhibitions that no longer result in consistent blow-bys. Encouragingly, he made four of his seven 3-pointers; He’s increasingly dependent on his step back 3s going down as he no longer looks like the guy who gets to the rim or free throw line at will. Harden only finished two of his 10 shots inside the arc, but here’s the number that really counts: A turnover.

The Raptors led the league in defensive turnover rate that season. Here’s what they do: They turn and score in the transition period, where they average 22.5 points per game in the regular season, the fifth-highest mark in the league. You’ve got a stable of tall, athletic guys using something of an organized chaos system, frantic and improvisational enough to unbalance and accelerate their opponents, and the next thing you know, passes are tilted or be stolen and the raptors race drive other ways.

But Harden never let that happen.

“He was great. I thought he was controlling the game,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of Harden. “I figured if he had to go in there and knock people over, he did it. When he had to resign and make a 3, he did. … He had a really efficient night and I thought he really controlled offense as well. He put the ball where he wanted it. He called a set, they got him where they wanted him to be and I thought he ran the show tonight really well.

It has to be argued that this was about as good as the Sixers can play together and as bad as the Raptors can play. It’s unsustainable for Maxey and Harris to have 64 points combined and Matisse Thybulle can’t play in Toronto because he’s not double-vaccinated. But Joel Embiid, who scored just 19 on 5-of-15 shooting, has a lot of meat on his bone and now Scottie Barnes could be out for the Raptors with a sprained ankle.

So, yes, this streak started off as promising as could be for Sixers, but there’s still a lot to prove for Harden. The prevailing wisdom is that the Sixers will sign him for maximum overtime this offseason no matter what; If they don’t and don’t win a title this season, they will have traded Ben Simmons and Seth Curry for nothing.

But if Harden fell well over that cliff this postseason, it would be a hard pill for Daryl Morey and the Sixers to sign on at over $200 million for four more years. Harden said he’s going into this season with no pressure, and in a way, that’s true. He’s already a Hall of Famer. He’s already embarrassingly rich, and one way or another he’ll land another big contract. The only thing left on his to-do list is winning a title. If it happens, cool. If not, his career won’t exactly have been a flop.

The way Harden’s season ended, no one thought the Sixers were legitimate title contenders. Six of our eight writers predicted they wouldn’t get past Toronto in the first round. One game is far from enough to reconsider the Sixers’ title ambitions or even count out Toronto. That was just a good start for Harden and the Sixers. No more, no less. We’ll see if they can secure it in Game 2.

Viardos Sports