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Before game one of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in Boston, James Harden was ready to make a statement. The previous round, his Philadelphia 76ers had disposed of the far inferior Brooklyn Nets in a clean sweep, but not without consequences: MVP Joel Embiid sprained his right knee during the series and was ruled out for game one against the East’s number-two seed. Harden, who has had a rather checkered playoff history, and who no longer seems to be the one-man offense he was as a Houston Rocket, would be the focal point of his team’s attack. Walking through the tunnel at the TD Garden, Harden made it abundantly clear that he was ready for the moment: he emerged from the team bus looking like Grimace from McDonald’s rocking a fleece, with pops of neon yellow accenting pants so baggy he could have smuggled teammates into the stadium. 

The outfit, like many of Harden’s, was enough to cause a stir, but he backed it up with an out-of-nowhere 45 points, six assist performance. Harden skeptics warned that he has shown these on-the-court flashes before—that one game wouldn’t change the narrative. And yet, with his boldly nutso outfit choices, vintage one-man-band efforts on the court, and at least one heart-warming charitable act, James Harden has emerged as something no one would have expected: the hero of the 2023 NBA Playoffs.

Harden lighting it up in game four.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

It took a minute for him to get going: Harden shot a paltry 2-14 in game two. The Sixers lost game three, as well—and Harden played horribly. Perhaps the focus of film room study between games three and four shifted from on-court tactics to off-court decisions, because after rocking humdrum fits to games two and three, Harden arrived in Philadelphia ahead of game four in enviable fashion. Let’s start from the top. A pinstripe bucket hat with the word “WAR” emblazoned in pink and purple cartoon letters? Hell yeah. Not one but two of the exact same “UNO” chains? Uh huh. A white leather chore coat with silver studs and ¾-arm sleeves? Now we’re talking. From the jump, it was clear that game four would be Harden’s night. Not only did he hit the game-winning three pointer to give Philly the win and tie up the series, but he was clearly the best player on the floor again, taking over for an obviously hampered Embiid.

The statistics make the case better than I can: prior to game 5, Harden was averaging 43.5 points per game and 6.5 three pointers made per game in the team’s two wins and 14 points and one three-pointer per game during their losses. In those two losses–during which he was not his best dressed self–he shot an astoundingly bad 5-28.

To throw a wrench in the style hypotheses, here’s the mind-boggling screwiness of Harden’s inconsistencies. He’s dressed like a madman for a decade, and has consistently one of the best regular season players in the NBA. When the stakes get highest, though, he struggles. NBA expert Zach Lowe explained it succinctly on his podcast, The Lowe Post: “I did the deep dive. Harden’s 4th quarter numbers, in big games, in elimination games, in 2-2 series games, are bad,” he says. “His crunch time numbers are bad. Most of his best playoff games are when his team is up 3-0, down 3-0, up 3-1, down 3-1.” But maybe—just maybe—something’s different this time around. After all, he invited Michigan State University shooting victim John Hao to game four and gave him a signed pair of sneakers. He even demanded the Sixers take care of Hao for game six.