James Harden’s debut with the Philadelphia 76ers was as close to perfect as it could have been and the only thing that could have made it better was if it happened in front of their home crowd.
The 10-time NBA All-Star dropped 27 points, eight rebounds, and 12 assists in 35 minutes to help the Sixers overpower the Minnesota Timberwolves, 133-102, at the Target Center. He was a team-best +35 for the evening and did not seem bothered at all by the hamstring injury that has kept him sidelined for the past few weeks.
The 32-year-old deviated from his preferred isolation-heavy style of play for most of the match and zipped the ball around which kept Minnesota on its toes over their match. On some occasions though, it was too difficult for him to resist unleashing his signature stepback move.
For a few moments though, they started out awkwardly. Philadelphia fell behind 6-1 within the first two minutes of the first quarter as they felt each other out, before they immediately pulled things together and built a double-digit lead.
Harden’s passing ability was on full display and was infectious as the Sixers tallied 30 assists as a team – seven more than their season average of 23. His first basket for Philadelphia came three minutes into the game after he drove in from the left wing against Anthony Edwards for a lay-up. He also drew a foul on the play and made the ensuing free throw.
The score was rather one-sided from that point on and became a showcase of the potential of this revamped 76ers team.
The 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player Harden was only the third leading scorer of his team, with Joel Embiid putting up what is now a customary 34 points and 10 rebounds while sophomore guard Tyrese Maxey scored 28 points on a highly efficient 12-of-16 shooting.
The superstar duo of Harden and Embiid were fantastic as told by their statistics. When they shared the floor together, it was difficult for the Timberwolves to zero in on either of the two which opened up the floor for both of them.
They are also two of the best at creating free throw attempts which makes them a nightmare to defend on any given night, regardless of how well they are shooting from the field.
There is still much room for improvement though, as they failed to connect on a few alley-oop attempts and entry passes. More time on the floor together should help them build chemistry and improve on this which makes their remaining 24 games in the regular season even more crucial. A my-turn-your-turn arrangement would still be deadly yet the full potential of their team will only be unlocked if they can establish a more seamless brand of basketball.
These two often shared the floor with Tobias Harris, an excellent floor spacer and capable secondary playmaker, and defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle who has become a clever cutter on offense to compensate for his lack of outside shooting. Their presence helped keep the defense honest, but the biggest revelation of the evening was the last member of their five-man group Maxey.
Now freed from the responsibility of being their primary ball handler with Harden now onboard, the 6’2 guard was all over the place and impossible to keep up with throughout the contest. Harden, currently second in the league in assists with 10.2 per game, found a streaking Maxey for easy baskets on a couple of occasions that teased the potential of their backcourt pairing.
The speedy and fearless Maxey, who has a knack for attacking the rim, profiles as the perfect target for Harden’s pinpoint passing. This gives them a different dimension that will come in handy when teams start zeroing in on the dominant Embiid.
The early returns are promising for this Sixers team, even if it was just one game. Harden is a much better fit for them than Ben Simmons and immediately turns them into one of the most lethal offensive teams in the league. The only foreseeable roadblocks for this group are Harden’s health and the outsized personalities of their two stars, though head coach Doc Rivers should be able to keep things under control, at least in the interim.
The race for playoff positioning in the East has now grown even more exciting with Harden on board in Philadelphia. This team automatically becomes one of the favorites to win, not just the Eastern Conference Finals, but the whole thing this year. Harden got his wish and now it’s time for him to deliver.