PHILADELPHIA — The 76ers were in danger of losing a grip on their season when James Harden squared up for a baseline 3-pointer late in overtime Sunday, and in that nanosecond before he released the shot, an anxious crowd at Wells Fargo Center could only wait and watch.
It was a chance for redemption. Harden had been inscrutable through the first three games of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Boston Celtics — assertive one game, passive the next (two). But he had been brilliant in Game 4 on Sunday, and with 19 seconds left in overtime, he shot the ball one final time.
Harden’s 3-pointer lifted the 76ers to a 116-115 victory that evened the best-of-seven series at 2-2, and it was a fitting way for Harden to close out an all-time performance: 42 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds and 4 steals.
The 76ers have been a staple of the N.B.A. playoffs over the past six seasons, making five appearances in the conference semifinals. But those second-round series are where the road has tended to end for them. The last time they made the conference finals was in 2001, when Allen Iverson led them past the Milwaukee Bucks and into the N.B.A. finals. (The 76ers wound up losing in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers.)
The collective patience of Philadelphians seems to be wearing thin. Before Game 3, when N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver presented 76ers center Joel Embiid with his first Most Valuable Player Award, it was the fulfillment — on at least one level — of the franchise’s dust-covered, team-building blueprint known as the Process. Without getting into too many of the messy specifics, it involved the team playing abysmal basketball for several seasons while collecting a slew of top draft picks, one of which they used to select Embiid from the University of Kansas.
The challenge for the 76ers, of course, is that the Process was never about winning individual honors, though those are nice. The mandate now, on players like Embiid and Harden, but also on Coach Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey, the team’s president of basketball operations, is to vie for a championship. Embiid is 29. The 76ers traded for Harden last season. Before Game 4, Rivers was asked about his team’s level of urgency.
“Do I really need to answer that question?” he said, laughing. “You worked on that question for 48 hours, and that’s what you came up with? Whatever high is, I’m going to assume it’s high.”
Harden delivered. Early in the first quarter, he made a beeline to the basket and scored on a runner, playfully bopping the ball off his head after it fell through the hoop. It was a sign of more pyrotechnics to come.
None of it was easy. The 76ers gave up a 16-point third-quarter lead. Embiid finished with 34 points and 13 rebounds, but struggled from the field, shooting 11 of 26. And Jayson Tatum scored 22 of his 24 points after halftime, nearly leading the Celtics to a crushing comeback. Instead, Harden shouldered the load for the 76ers.
During the regular season, Harden operated as a facilitator, averaging a league-best 10.7 assists a game. He was neither the scoring nor the 3-point-shooting machine that he was in a former basketball life with the Houston Rockets. Instead, he formed a potent partnership with Embiid, the team’s centripetal force. Everything and everyone revolved around Embiid, for good reason, including Harden.
Game 1 of the 76ers’ series with the Celtics upset that balance in an odd and unexpected way. Embiid was sidelined with a sprained right knee, which meant that Harden apparently felt obliged to board his personal time machine and travel back to his gluttonous, ball-dominant days with the Rockets. He torched the Celtics, scoring 45 points while shooting 7 of 14 from 3-point range to lead the 76ers to a narrow win.
Embiid was back in the lineup for Games 2 and 3, and suddenly Harden seemed almost too conscious of his teammate’s presence, too passive and deferential. It hardly helped that Jaylen Brown affixed himself to Harden for long stretches. In those two losses, Harden shot a combined 5 of 28 from the field. Game 3 on Friday was particularly gruesome. Harden routinely passed up open shots. When he did launch a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter, he barely grazed the front of the rim. More than a few fans expressed their displeasure.
“I think with anyone, if you’re not making shots, you hesitate at times,” Rivers said.
For his part, Harden defended his shot selection, telling reporters: “I’m pretty good on basketball instincts. I know when to score. I know when to pass, so I’m pretty sure a lot of it was the right play.”
On Saturday, the 76ers had a lengthy film session at their practice facility. Rivers identified clips from Game 3 where he felt the 76ers needed to play with more pace, where the Celtics outhustled them for rebounds and loose balls, and where his players exhibited poor body language. The Celtics, who advanced to the N.B.A. finals last season and have renewed title aspirations of their own, carried themselves differently.
“And I know you have coaches who say this, but each round you grow,” Rivers said. “Boston is past that already. They’ve gone through each round, so they’ve gone through these frustrations already where it doesn’t faze them when they make mistakes. We’re not there, and that’s where we’re going.”
On Sunday, the 76ers made plenty of mistakes. Their offense stalled in the fourth quarter. They stopped moving and settled for tough shots. Harden, though, has playoff experience, and he used all of it.
Late in regulation, his runner over the Celtics’ Al Horford tied the game, 107-107. And in overtime, Harden came up with a key steal while defending Marcus Smart. He appeared to have a calming influence on his teammates.
He also found himself with the ball in his hands when it mattered most. He knew what to do with it.