More Sports:

February 26, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers dismantle Timberwolves in James Harden's debut

Sixers NBA

James Harden played a borderline perfect game during his first night in a Sixers uniform, starring with Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey in a 133-102 Sixers victory.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• James Harden and the Sixers took a couple of minutes to really get rolling in this game, understandable for a group that has quite literally never played together before Friday night. But even in the opening moments, you could see a level of urgency in the entire group that can be attributed to Harden's arrival and what it means for this group.

Right away, you could see the respect other teams have for Harden as he turns the corner in pick-and-rolls and handoffs, with the Wolves repeatedly showing high and hard in order to force the ball out of his hands. And Harden made it clear he wasn't going to try to force his way through brick walls, hitting open spot-up guys, cutters, and shooters alike as the Sixers mostly cleared out and tried to let their two stars go to work.

The biggest difference between the Sixers with Harden and the Sixers without Harden is that this team suddenly has the luxury to routinely outplay good teams with Embiid off of the floor, something they would have needed a miracle to accomplish at most points throughout this season. During their first night together, Embiid ended up in foul trouble toward the end of the first half, earning a spot next to Doc Rivers on the bench as the clock ticked down toward zero. But instead of the Sixers walking into halftime in the midst of a dogfight, Harden threw an absolute haymaker in the final two minutes, getting to the line multiple times in addition to finding Thybulle for a leak-out dunk in transition.

Oh yeah, he hit a stepback three while being fouled during that time, earning his first big-time highlight as a member of the team. Perimeter players simply haven't done this in a Sixers uniform very often during my lifetime:

He hit a few more of these before it was all said and done, opening his Sixers account with a 27-8-12 line in a dominant, not-even-close victory over a Wolves team that talked a bit of trash the night before about this matchup. 

The most impressive thing about this performance is how Harden's intelligence bent the game in Philadelphia's direction. His ability to mix speeds off-the-dribble, as a passer, and in transition got the Sixers clean looks all over the floor, even if he didn't get the direct assist on the play. The combination of feel and actual passing ability found Sixers players who would have been left wanting in earlier iterations of this team.

This is definitely the honeymoon period because we saw Harden do some things that he either stopped doing over the years or did so infrequently that he might as well have stopped. Harden didn't just move without the basketball some on Friday, he took and made a corner three after relocating there late in the shot clock on a first-half possession. If Harden does that sort of stuff and buys into the teamwide vision they have for the offense, their ceiling is unimaginable on offense.

I'll save my buzzkill "prove it to me over time" stuff for if/when it's actually relevant. That was about as good of a debut as anyone could have hoped for. 

• Tyrese Maxey's speed has been a big factor for Philadelphia this season, but Friday night was one of the first times that it felt like he had a chance to use it often away from the play. With another legitimate ballhandler (and excellent passer) on the floor, Maxey was free to fly up the floor in transition to provide Philly with an outlet, and he was rewarded on multiple occasions, with Sixers teammates hitting the streaker in stride for easy points. That has to feel like a dream for Maxey, who has had to work damn hard for a lot of his offense this season.

It has been rare for the Sixers to have multiple guys who are threats to take you off the dribble on the floor at the same time, and seeing Maxey get minutes next to Harden drove home how basketball is truly meant to be played. When you only have one guy who can beat people off-the-dribble, teams can sell out to wall that guy off and then your offense is stuck in the mud. Throughout Friday's game, Harden would draw Timberwolves defenders toward him before they were set on defense, then ping the ball to Maxey as Minnesota scrambled to reload against No. 0, who was already by his man before they could get set.

One subplot that did not get discussed much, if at all after Harden was acquired was the impact it might have on Maxey as a defensive player. There were obviously questions and concerns about how his skill set would look next to the Embiid/Harden pairing, but no one stopped to think about whether he'd have more energy to exert on the other end of the floor. Maxey seemed determined to make an impact there against the Wolves, coming up with three first-half steals by playing active defense away from the ball and buying into his role with this new group.

This was an excellent Maxey game, and proof of concept for a future where he can be the third most important player on a team with contention hopes. 

• If you're a neutral tuning into Sixers games, or worse yet, a fan of the opposing team, it seems like you're going to be watching a lot of free-throw attempts. If you're on the Philadelphia side of things, that's got to be a beautiful sight, because Embiid was already a one-man machine at the charity stripe before Harden came to town.

Embiid did not have the best start to the game as a shooter, but he was the tip of the spear for Philadelphia in their assault of the free-throw line, which inspired boos and jeers from the Minnesota crowd before the first quarter had even ended. Philadelphia had 20 free throw attempts with over eight minutes left in the second quarter, with Timberwolves players in visible disgust as they tried to figure out where the line of physicality was on defense. They settled on it in the second half, which will help all of us get a bit of sleep tonight.

This was the rare big Embiid game where his performance sort of snuck up on you, perhaps because he was the beneficiary of Harden taking some heavy offensive lifting out of his hands. Instead of having to beat defenders one-on-one — or one-on-two, or one-on-three — Embiid was so open on some possessions that he almost seemed bewildered, not realizing there was space to attack in front of him. That ultimately didn't hurt or matter much, because the most important thing we saw from Embiid in this game was a willingness to get downhill and roll toward the basket. He ran hard, he ran often, and Harden rewarded him frequently, threading and lobbing passes into the big man where only he could get them.

If you want to debate whether there will be a power struggle at some point, sure, go nuts with that if you want to speculate about it. But any on-court fit concerns on offense look wildly overblown at the moment, and it turns out that these two guys knew what they were talking about. You put two of the game's most talented and intelligent players on the floor together, and they're going to make some magic.

• I think this game reflected really well on Doc Rivers and the coaching staff outside of one obvious blunder. The rotations made sense and had clear, logical goals behind them, and the messaging they gave to the team clearly resonated, because these guys were all on the same page for most of the night, which is no small feat in the circumstances.

Rivers talked recently (pre-Harden trade) about his desire to only have one ball-stopper on offense, noting that he wanted Tobias Harris to be a quicker decisionmaker to reach that goal. Now that they have two guys who can justifiably have ball-stopping possessions, the onus is on everybody else to move the ball and shoot when they're open. There were some record-scratch moments, certainly, but their overall pace of play and the speed at which they moved the ball was light years ahead of most games this season, a good sign for the opening game of this new era.

If Rivers goes all-bench in game closer than this one, feel free to tee off on him. For now, I think he deserves a bit of kudos for what he already got right in the opening game of the Embiid/Harden partnership.

The Bad

• I can't believe how many people spent last winter yelling in disgust about the idea of trading Ben Simmons for James Harden as if it was a terrible idea for the Sixers. Come on. 

• I wonder if D'Angelo Russell regrets saying this:

No, my guy, it appears you needed to worry about stopping the Sixers.

The Ugly

• The foul Thybulle committed on D'Angelo Russell just over a minute into the game would have been a bench-able offense for a lot of guys on this roster. If Thybulle is going to be the defensive specialist who gets a chance to start, those plays can't happen ever, let alone in the first two minutes of a game.

• I sent a positive tweet about Paul Millsap during the first half of Philadelphia's game against the Bucks, and I rescind that claim after seeing just how cooked he appears to be. He got the first crack at backup center in the Harden-led minutes for the bench, and he had two of the ugliest attempts at the rim I've seen all season in the span of about two minutes. Just put somebody who can jump in that spot and let Harden cook. 

• Look, I get that they were up by a million, but Rivers going all-bench in the third quarter of this game is legitimately hilarious and insane. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports