PHILADELPHIA — The difference between 3-1 and 2-2 in a best-of-seven NBA playoff series is monumental. Having to win two of the final three games vs. needing to take all three, including two on the road, to advance is far different.
James Harden was the biggest reason the 76ers downed the Heat, 116-108, in Game 4 on Sunday night at the Wells Fargo Center and evened the series at 2 heading into Game 5 on Tuesday night (7:30) in Miami. Game 6 is set for Thursday night at 7 in South Philly.
A three-time scoring champion and former MVP with the Rockets, Harden has run the Sixers’ offense well, but been more of a complementary scorer. His high in the nine postseason games prior to Sunday was 22 points.
In Game 4, Harden scored 16 of his team-high 31 points in the fourth quarter, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers, allowing the Sixers to hold off the Heat and overcome a terrific 40-point outing from Jimmy Butler, as well as a scoreless final period from franchise player Joel Embiid.
“Same shots (as before) — I just made them,” Harden said. “Nothing really changed, man. I made some shots. Obviously, it’s a game changer, but (I was) just being aggressive.”
Harden could increase the Sixers’ chances of a long playoff run if he can keep scoring at a high level.
“He’s adjusting based on what we need from him, whether it’s playmaking or tonight just going and getting buckets, especially based on how they were guarding him and making tough shots,” Embiid said. “He’s been doing that his whole career. That’s why he’s here.”
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The NBA fined the Sixers $50,000 for violating the league’s injury-reporting rules by not giving Embiid’s participation status in “an accurate and timely manner” before Game 3 vs. Miami. Essentially, the league was saying the Sixers should’ve initially listed Embiid as doubtful rather than out and then updated him to questionable rather than doubtful.
The Sixers had Embiid as questionable for Game 4, though there was little doubt he would play. He had a big first quarter with 15 points on 5-fot-6 shooting to key the Sixers’ 30-28 lead going into the second. Wearing a protective mask again, Embiid finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds.
While being at home in Games 3 and 4 contributed to the Sixers evening the series, Embiid’s return was essential. It’s no accident that they’re 2-0 when he’s played after losing the first two with Embiid sidelined by a facial fracture and mild concussion. Embiid is also the primary reason the Sixers went from 14 for 64 on 3-pointers in the first two games to 32 of 66 in the two victories.
Harden helped, too.
“It’s just James being James,” said Sixers coach Doc Rivers. “He played great. I said it before the game I thought he would have a big game tonight. I didn’t know (he’d have) 31 points and all the other stuff.”
It’s essentially become a best-of-three with the top-seeded Heat having the extra home game for the right to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
“Game 5 is going to be a lot of fun,” Rivers said.
It should be for the Sixers if James Harden can repeat his Game 4 performance.