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James Harden's game-winner lifts Sixers in pivotal Game 4 victory

James Harden's game-winner lifts Sixers in a pivotal Game 4 victory, sending the series back to Boston tied at two games each.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Key details on Game 4:

  • James Harden finished the game with 42 points on 16-23 shooting, including the game-winning corner 3 with 19 seconds left on the clock. He also had 9 assists with just 1 turnover.
  • Harden scored 10 of the Sixers' 15 points in the fourth quarter, then scored or assisted on 5 of the 9 overtime points.
  • The Sixers came back from a 105-100 deficit with 2:04 left to play in regulation, and went on to win 116-115 in overtime.

Box score

How can the team that played in games 2 and 3, that looked at times both athletically overmatched and also too mistake prone to be taken seriously, come out and look so good for the first three quarters in Game 4?

It's a question I feel like NBA fans increasingly have to grapple with, as pace and perimeter shooting increase the night-to-night variance, which then impacts how we perceive the performance of our favorite team.

But the fluctuations that this Sixers team experiences goes beyond this being a make or miss league. In fact, the Sixers outshot the Celtics in Game 3, going 43.2% from deep which, when combined with a 30/13 night from Joel Embiid, is usually the blueprint for a decisive victory over just about any team in the league.

But getting beat in the hustle plays, combined with the Sixers' two primary perimeter scorers struggling mightily to attack the paint (Maxey and Harden combined to shoot 2-14 inside of the 3-point line) and the Sixers came out on the losing end in a demoralizing Game 3 loss, making Game 4 a virtual do-or-die situation for the Sixers.

No player has exemplified that game-to-game rollercoaster more than James Harden, who has a pair of legitimately career-defining moments in games 1 and 4, then a pair of absolute clunkers sandwiched in the middle. Harden has shot a combined 33-53 for 87 points in the two games that the Sixers won, then 5-28 for 28 points in the two losses.

Harden had 21 points on 11 shots, to go along with five assists, in the first half on Sunday afternoon, forming an unstoppable two-man game with Embiid (19/11 on 7-12 shooting in the first half) as the Sixers played one of their best offensive halves of the season, especially true given the high stakes and the strength of their opponent.

Even still, the best was yet to come for Harden. As Joel Embiid started to tire in the third quarter, then fell off of a cliff in the fourth, it became more and more evident that the Sixers were going to need Harden to carry them over the finish line. But then Boston ran off a 17-4 run over a five minute stretch of the fourth quarter, erasing the Sixers' 16-point second-half lead and turning the objective from "carry them over the finish line" and into "desperately try to save the season."

Regardless of how the challenge was framed, Harden was up for the task. The Sixers ran a Harden/Maxey pick-and-roll to end that Boston run, where they got Jaylen Brown switched off of Harden, who then went to work and completely blew by Malcolm Brogdon off the dribble. Harden chose to attack just as Embiid was coming up to set a screen, as Harden used Horford's momentum against him, removing him from the play. Embiid served as a mere decoy on that one.

That was the right call.

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