The James Harden paradox: Disappearing act in Sixers’ explosive loss sheds light on both sides of fascinating career arc

It was the classic James Harden – either way, this paradox tends to show up. As a great historical player and, for results beyond individual distinctions, as a disturbing player on a historical scale.

In the Philadelphia 76ers’ degradation at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets in that 129-100 rout on Thursday night, Harden showed both sides of his fascinating career journey and all the possibilities — very good or very, very disappointing — that have not. not played yet. outside.

You know the back story: The trade that sent Harden to Philadelphia for disgruntled star Ben Simmons, plus Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and draft picks, and supercharged an already fierce Premier League rivalry. Is.

Although Simmons has yet to play this season, despite the trade he forced, his arrival at his old stomping grounds in street clothes set the tone for a blazing NBA spotlight on toughness, the stars swapped, old friends turned rivals and all the other soap operas. -dripping operatic drama of any contest now featuring these two teams.

Tickets were exorbitantly priced. The arena rocked. The whole league watched. And a playoff atmosphere fueled a game that had all the hallmarks of a very, very big, big deal.

Enter Harden and the two sides of his confusing coin.

Early on, just five minutes into the game, Harden hit a 3-pointer that cemented his place as the all-time leading scorer. Trey was No. 2,561 in his career, pushing him past Reggie Miller for third all-time in the NBA record books.

It was a single dagger in a career made of them, the one that brought Harden an MVP, multiple goalscoring titles and the superstar weight one needs if, like the beard, they plan to shed their weight time and time again. to force their way from one team to another.

He is an extraordinary offensive talent.

That’s why sometimes his tendency — like that night — to turn big moments and big games into a murderous, victory-defying antithesis of his best self also makes him historically disappointing, at least so far.

Because in the middle of this story Thursday night, Harden laid an egg. A giant. His brutal score in the nightclub doesn’t tell the whole story: the 11 points on 3-of-17 shooting and the plus-minus box score of -30 looks pretty bad.

The deeper truth is that Harden was even worse early in the game, when his utter horror helped the Nets take a 40-23 first quarter lead. The match ended early, as did Harden’s self-confidence and swagger. It was a battle of wills between two proud teams, and Harden disappeared before he could enter his third act.

Harden is great. The record he set testifies to this. Harden is also a big question mark in the playoffs — or, less optimistically, a waiting landmine.

Take Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals, when the Harden-led Houston Rockets turned a 3-2 lead into an ugly loss. Game 7 is where Harden, who went 12 of 29 and 2 of 13 from three, played with such panic and fear that he spread defeatism on this team as he normally had.

That night, “led” by Harden, Houston at one point missed on 27 consecutive three-pointers. Twenty seven. Houston went home and the Warriors won a title.

Harden supporters will protest: Hater! He’s too good – remarkable, even – for this ridicule.

Hardened skeptics will say: see! He did it again against the Nets, that pattern of disappearing when the moments get too big.

Both views are true, just as both Hardens were in attendance Thursday night against Brooklyn. The great historical player, and the guy, for such a great one, who is incredibly capable of crashing down and taking his team with him.

There’s so much more context and nuance to all of this than just one game. There’s the fact that since Harden’s arrival, the Sixers had won five in a row before the Nets game. There’s the reality that Brooklyn played a suffocating defense on Thursday that they struggled to emulate often enough to argue that it’s more than an emotion-filled aberration. There’s the all-important reality that the Sixers are still well positioned in a crowded Eastern Conference standings, while the Nets remain in that dangerous place of purgatory.

There is the truth that, yes, it was just a game.

But Harden – the great record holder, the Thursday night guy who couldn’t handle this super-charged atmosphere – will be faced in the months and years to come with a singular reality that will merge these two parts into one.

Either he wins a championship to cement his greatness in a way that really matters, or he’s the guy who sets records and dazzles with stats — while, simultaneously, failing at what really needs to be done.