The Philadelphia 76ers are now 5-0 when James Harden has played, and Joel Embiid’s new co-star again showed how big a difference he can make without having a big scoring night.
Harden finished their game against the Bulls with 16 points, eight rebounds and 14 assists, and really could have had more dimes if his teammates made more open shots. Even on a relatively rough shooting night, where he finished 5 of 15 from the field, Harden drew enough attention with the threat of his drives and shooting range that wide open threes, dunks, and layups were on the menu all night for the 76ers.
For example, take a look at how two defenders instantly lost track of Georges Niang when he played a give and go with Harden. As soon as Harden got the ball, Niang was instantly freed of the guy guarding him, resulting in an open three.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Embiid has never seen such floor spacing before, and defenders are often looking dumbfounded about how to rotate and stop the 76ers when they attack. Embiid had another massive night with 43 points, 14 rebounds, two steals and three blocks while shooting 15 of 27 from the field and 12 of 16 from the charity stripe. He’s basically unstoppable when covered with a single defender, and Harden’s presence on the floor ensured that happened a lot. That in turn helped Embiid feast, especially with Nikola Vucevic unavailable.
In a play from the third quarter, take a look at what happens when Harden gets the ball beyond the arc on the right side. All he has to do is make a little hesitation drive and Tristan Thompson, who is already too small to guard Embiid, turns his eyes away from his primary cover. The Beard spots this instantly, throws a bounce pass to Embiid, who is left with space in the lane to drive on an even smaller Zach LaVine, whose only choice is to get out of the way as the Cameroonian center flies in for a slam.
Considering that Harden has only played five games with his new team, it’s a very encouraging sign for Philly fans that they have started to adapt to Harden’s game so quickly. Then again, it’s kind of easy to adapt when your man is always giving you the ball when you’re wide open. Even Matisse Thybulle, who is a hellacious defender, is getting far more involved in the offense and cutting with intention to score since Harden keeps giving him the ball in good spots. Take a look at these two easy baskets for Thybulle that came courtesy of a Harden pass. If your teammate is finding you good looks from the first to the fourth quarter, you’re going to spend more time trying to reward him for his unselfishness.
The new-look 76ers are definitely passing the eye test right now, and heating up at the right time in an extremely close race for the playoffs. I’m still waiting to see if they can continue doing this in a seven game series, but for now will just enjoy watching a master ply his craft.
We’re yet to see Ben Simmons take to the court for the Nets, and it may be a while yet. Which kind of makes you wonder how Kevin Durant currently feels about all of this.