This one goes out to the readers in their thirties—and beyond. There is a thing that happens in that decade of life, to your body—first in hints and then in a series of seemingly never-ending knockout punches. It happens to your spirit, too, to be sure; this dwindling sense of possibility feels even more real on the physical level, though, as your frame adds weight and malfunctions in different ways almost every day. Intense exertion becomes more and more of an event, every bout of athleticism meticulously planned for with the requisite diet, rest, stretching, and perhaps even medication leading up to it. And the mere notion of those exhilarating rides through the night, imbibing whatever alcohols make you more pleasantly animalistic, start to induce stress and doom more than relief and levity, because you know the cost of them all too well, and you can too readily see a world in which you are no longer able to move right.
James Harden knows what I'm talking about. The 32-year-old looks to have hit this kind of wall a year ago. After a trade from the Houston Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets—two franchises where he contributed to what were almost, but ultimately not, basketball dynasties—Harden put the pressure on Brooklyn to move him again, and now he's with the Philadelphia 76ers. Through all this, he has barely ever shown the stuff that made him the 2018 MVP of the league, and a perennial runner-up in many other seasons. Harden's reputation for partying has followed him for the better part of a decade, and the mileage on his body is even more epic on the court than it is at the club—in the under-35 portion of active players, only three have seen more minutes than Harden.
Ailed by a perma-sore hamstring, Harden's brain being his greatest muscle has looked progressively like a deficit as opposed to a strength as the flesh-and-bones ship that it drives has lost so much of its burst. When Harden reaches into the same bag of isolation moves that has dizzied defenders for so long, this arc of decline has been straight up sad in Philadelphia, with even many of his schadenfreude-thirsty haters turning their eyes away as they see his mortality on such naked display, and are made to contemplate their own. It has been hard to watch.
That was not the case on Sunday night, though, as Harden put more than a year's worth of doubt, drama, criticism, frustration, and cynicism to bed for at least the duration of one majorly significant basketball contest. In one of the best games of his career, Harden found exactly the cracks in the Miami Heat's defense that he needed to, and lifted the 76ers to a victory that tied their second round series at 2-2 after they had trailed 0-2 upon dropping the first couple of matchups in South Beach—where, of course, Harden was chased by suspicions that he would spend too much time indulging the night life, which is a fair thing to expect from a guy who admitted to once going to a Rockets practice at 7:30 AM straight from an all-night studio session with Lil Baby, Meek Mill, and Lil Durk.
But in Game 4, Harden looked like a man who had gone to the spa, hydrated extensively, seen many a trainer, and eaten only whole foods. He had 31 points, to go with nine assists and seven rebounds. By the standards of his mega-usage, record-shattering days in Houston, it's a pedestrian line, but the way it looked in Philadelphia, the extent to which it was exactly what his team needed, and all the rocky context leading up to the performance made for a Harden moment that will be as remembered as any. What was most encouraging about it was that it wasn't as if Harden's athleticism of yore just suddenly returned, though: he was not flying by the perimeter defense, drawing double and triple teams repeatedly, tossing lobs to various big men alone at the rim, and getting wide open threes for himself because the opposition is too scared to foul him or let him drive.
No, Harden just looked more comfortable with what he is now—with the various adjustments he needs to make with less devastating deceleration, mostly. He is still one of the most agile passers alive, and still has enough feel on the perimeter to hurt you without being a lethal go-to-the-paint-at-will guy. He was able to get in there once in clutch time when the bigger Bam Adebayo was guarding him, and also took advantage of an unset defense in the open court for a layup as well. Otherwise, he was living on his stepback three, which was as troublesome as ever. The shot looked not like a particularly jarring one, but more like a death-and-taxes inevitability, and the thing that Harden can do for several more years regardless of how his body is feeling. Most importantly, he was clearly feeling the tension of the moment and massaging it with a seasoned comfort, pushing the Heat back at every pivotal point of their comeback turn. He looked like a man whose experience has enriched him, rather than ran him ragged, and gave everyone with the fear of being too washed up something to model themselves after.