Harden, signed from Brooklyn in February with the goal of turning the Sixers into championship contenders, was anonymous on Thursday as Philadelphia bowed out of the post-season in a 99-90 loss to Miami.
The 32-year-old former Most Valuable Player finished with just 11 points from 4-of-9 shooting from 42 minutes on court.
But it was Harden’s second-half display as Philadelphia chased the game that drew the ire of critics.
Harden took just two shots in the second half — one each in the third and fourth quarters — for zero points.
“This was one of the most atrocious performances by a star in NBA playoff history,” ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith said on the network’s “First Take” program. “James Harden was so bad last night it almost looked like he did it on purpose.”
Smith’s criticism was echoed by Fox Sports pundit Skip Bayless, who questioned Harden’s motivation.
“It became clear he wanted no part in the post-season because he does not care about winning,” Bayless said on the “Undisputed” show.
“He cares about winning MVP, he cares about being ranked in the NBA’s top 75 all-time players. He cares about making huge money… James Harden got exposed on the biggest stage.”
Adding insult to injury, a critical tweet by Bayless was liked by Ben Simmons, who was offloaded by Philadelphia in exchange for Harden in February. Simmons had received similar criticism after the Sixers playoff exit last season.
– ‘Pathetic effort’ –
ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Vitale, meanwhile, was also aghast at Harden’s display.
“Really a pathetic effort by Harden, a lock future Hall of Famer!” Vitale wrote on Twitter.
Speaking after Thursday’s loss, Harden said he hopes to remain in Philadelphia, and is adamant the roster is capable of challenging for championships in future.
“For me, personally, this has been a long year,” Harden said. “But since I’ve been here, it has been great. We’re just trying to build something so fast. We’re trying to build a championship contender team so fast, which I still think we are. We’re just missing a few pieces.”
Harden, however, will retreat to the off-season reflecting on statistics for the Sixers that were well below his career averages.
In 21 games for Philadelphia, he averaged 21 points per game — his lowest scoring average since he averaged 16.8 points per game for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011-2012.
Sixers star Joel Embiid, meanwhile, pulled no punches in a frank assessment of his teammate after Thursday’s loss, saying Harden was a shadow of the player who won the 2018 NBA MVP award with Houston.
“Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden,” Embiid said. “But that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, he could have been, as all of us could have been, more aggressive.”
But Embiid insisted Philadelphia’s problems ran deeper than Harden’s lackluster playoff performances.
“Everybody has got to get better,” Embiid said. “It’s not just, not just about me or (Harden). From 1-15, there’s a reason why we lost to Miami. That means we all were not good enough. So everybody just has to be better.”