Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) passes the ball behind...

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) passes the ball behind his back against Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday (21) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 2, 2023, in Milwaukee. Credit: AP/Jeffrey Phelps

CAMDEN, N.J. — The question had to be asked.

Does James Harden ever think "I’m glad I got the hell out of Dodge" when he looks at the Nets and all the drama they’ve gone through this season? In other words, does he feel some sense of vindication for his decision to leave Brooklyn and come to a 76ers team where he now has a legitimate chance of finally winning a title?

“Everybody talked down on me and gave me negative feedback or whatever you want to call it,” Harden recalled Friday after his final practice before opening the playoffs against the Nets on Saturday. “Now, fast forward to today, no one is like “OK, James is smart” or “James knew what he was doing.”

OK, this is not going to be a popular sentiment with Nets fans who are still upset about the inelegant way that Harden left them in the middle of last season, but Harden was smart to realize how unsmart it was to pin his playoff hopes on a team with a star as undependable as Kyrie Irving.

It’s painful for Nets fans to remember how their team was projected to win multiple titles when Harden joined Irving and Kevin Durant in the middle of the 2020-21 season. It’s painful to remember how the Nets were 13-3 in the grand total of 16 games that the three played together over parts of two seasons. And it’s painful to think that when the Big 3 fell apart, the main thing the Nets got back was Ben Simmons and his ginormous contract.

You can say what you want about Harden and how he forced his way out of two teams — Houston and the Nets — over a 13-month period. What you can’t do is question his work ethic and unselfishness on the floor when he is healthy. Harden has been a workhorse his entire career. With the Nets, he averaged 37.1 minutes per game. This season with Philadelphia, he has averaged 36.8 minutes while leading the NBA in assists with 10.7 per game.

On Friday, all Harden would say about his decision to leave the Nets was “there were a lot of internal things going on.” The biggest internal thing going on was that Irving would not get the vaccination he needed in order to be eligible to play in a good chunk of the Nets' home games in 2021-22.

Basketball never seemed like it was Irving’s top priority, and it became clear that Harden had a problem with that lack of commitment in January of 2022 when he said of Irving “I’m going to give him the shot” after a big win in Chicago. A month later, Harden was gone.

It took a disappointing postseason followed by their first training camp together for Harden, Joel Embiid and their supporting cast to jell into a team that can compete with Eastern Conference big boys Boston and Milwaukee. But that’s what they’ve done and Harden has played a significant role, averaging 21 points on 38.5% from deep along with all those assists. Those are all-NBA numbers.

“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do,” said 76ers coach Doc Rivers. “There’s a lot of people out there who thought he would never do some of the things that he’s doing. Not as far as scoring, he can still do that, but as far as giving up scoring to run the team, and he’s doing that. He’s been great at it, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Harden also couldn’t be happier.  A big narrative heading into these playoffs is that no player is under more pressure than Harden. Despite having a Hall of Fame-type career, he has never won it all and his production in the playoffs has never equaled the regular season.

Harden said Friday he did not feel any pressure to prove himself as he enters his 14th postseason. He is just looking forward to beginning it all against a Nets team that looks nothing like the one he played on as Irving and Durant also moved on.

“I’m excited, man,” Harden said. “My energy, my pace, my aggressiveness is gonna be better. I’m just more comfortable, more confident in what I’m supposed to be doing out there.”

Confident and relieved to be playing where he is.

NETS VS. 76ERS FIRST ROUND SCHEDULE

Game 1: Saturday, at Philadelphia, ESPN, My9, 1 p.m.

Game 2: Monday, at Philadelphia, TNT, YES, 7:30 p.m.

Game 3: April 20, at Nets, TNT, My9, 7:30 p.m.

Game 4: April 22, at Nets, TNT, My9, 1 p.m.

* Game 5: April 24, at Philadelphia, TBD

* Game 6: April 27, at Nets, TBD

* Game 7: April 29, at Philadelphia, TBD

* if necessary

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