The James Harden paradox: Vanishing act in Sixers’ blowout loss flashes both sides of fascinating career arc

That was classic James Harden — in both of the ways that paradox tends to play itself out. As a historically great player and, for results beyond individual accolades, as a player worrisome on a historical scale.

In the Philadelphia 76ers debasement at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets in that 129-100 rout Thursday night, Harden flashed both sides of his fascinating career arc, and all the possibilities — very good or very, very disappointing – that have yet to play out.

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

Though 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 an NBA spotlight blazing brightly on hard feeling, swapped stars, former friends turned rivals and all the other soap -opera drama dripping from any contest now featuring these two teams.

Tickets were extravagantly priced. The arena rocked. The entire league watched. And a playoff atmosphere fed a game that had all the markings of a very, very big and important 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 marked his place as an all-time great scorer. The trey was No. 2,561 in his career, pushing him ahead of Reggie Miller for third all-time in the NBA’s record books.

It was a single dagger in a career made of them, one that has brought Harden an MVP, several scoring titles and the superstar weight one needs if, like the Beard, they plan to throw their weight around time and again to force their way from one team to the next.

He’s an extraordinary offensive talent.

Which is why at-times his tendency — like on this night — to turn in big moments and big games into an offense-killing, victory-deflating, antithesis of his better self makes him also historically disappointing, at least so far.

Because in the midst of that history Thursday night, Harden laid an egg. A giant one. His brutal box score on the night doesn’t tell the full story: The 11 points on 3-of-17 shooting and box-score plus-minus of -30 looks bad enough.

The deeper truth is that Harden was even worse in the early stages of the game, when his utter awesomeness helped the Nets run out to a 40-23 first-quarter lead. The game ended early, right along with Harden’s self confidence and swagger. This was a battle of wills between two proud teams, and Harden vanished before it could enter its third act.

Harden is great. The record he set speaks to that. Harden is also a great-big postseason question mark — or, less optimistically, a landmine in waiting.

Take Game 7 of the Western Conference finals back in 2018, when the Houston Rockets, then led by Harden, turned a 3-2 series lead into an ugly defeat. Game 7 is when Harden, who went 12-of-29 and 2-of-13 from three, played with such panic and fear that he spread defeatism through that team the way he had normally dished assists.

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

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

Harden doubters will say: See! He did it again against the Nets, that pattern of vanishing when moments grow too large.

Both views have truth to them, just as both Hardens were present Thursday night against Brooklyn. The historically great player, and the guy, for one so great, who is maddeningly able to go crashing down, and take 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 Brooklyn played a suffocating defense Thursday they have been hard-pressed to emulate often enough to argue it’s more than an emotion-filled aberration. There’s the very-important reality that the Sixers are still well-positioned in a crowded Eastern Conference standings, while the Nets remain in that dangerous, flip-a-coin play-in purgatory spot.

There’s the truth that, yes, it was just one game.

But Harden — the record-setting great, the guy from Thursday night who couldn’t handle that hyper-charged atmosphere — will face in the months and years ahead a singular reality that will meld these two parts into one.

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

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