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March 05, 2023

James Harden's resurgent year has given Sixers a chance to compete with anyone

Nearly 11 minutes into a fourth-quarter James Harden had controlled from start to finish, it looked like the Sixers' guard might have finally run out of solutions for Philadelphia. He had done his job, finding Joel Embiid in the middle of the floor, but the Bucks quickly closed the gaps and swarmed Embiid at the free-throw line, forcing a reset with the shot clock dwindling.

After making the correct play so many times up to that moment, it was on Harden to do it one last time. And there he was again — Harden caught a pass from Embiid, punished a subpar closeout from Jrue Holiday, and found Embiid in the trail spot with four Bucks players converging on Harden at the rim. The best they could offer was a wild Khris Middleton closeout at Embiid, which the big man sidestepped before loading up to shoot. Cash money, game over.

It was the perfect ending and perfect summation of this season for Philadelphia. The Sixers looked dead in the water, written off by their own fans, and their two best players rose to the occasion, deciding it was not Philadelphia's time to lose.

Embiid's consistent greatness has been there for years at this point, but anyone watching the team can see Harden looks different this year. During his first abridged season in Philadelphia, it felt like the best solution for playing the Sixers was to ask Harden to consistently beat one-on-one coverage. Harden was no less brilliant of a playmaker last year, finding immediate synergy with Embiid and their supporting cast, but too many possessions died on the vine because of the physical state Harden was in. There were scoring explosions, including a big one in the Heat series to knot it up at 2-2, but he was a long way from the seek-and-destroy Harden of the Houston years.

That guy was there in the fourth quarter on Saturday night. As the Bucks cycled through lineups in the final frame, the one constant was Harden bringing over screeners who would provide him with the favorable switch he wanted. 

Notably, that switch often ended up being Khris Middleton. Having Middleton on a regular basis has been part of Milwaukee's late-season surge, and the assumption that he will get back to the best version of himself is priced into championship expectations for the Bucks. But he is clearly a step or two off compared to previous seasons, and Harden smelled blood in the water. Throughout the fourth quarter, Harden found wherever the Bucks tried to hide Khris Middleton and kept hammering him, proving too strong for Middleton to do anything with on drives to the basket.

Down by 14 points heading into the fourth, the Sixers cut Milwaukee's lead down to four points by the time Embiid checked in at the 7:33 mark. Their approach only changed slightly from there. Double drag screens, which have been part of Philadelphia's offensive spine this season, were the lifeblood for Philadelphia again on Saturday night. Over would come Georges Niang, setting the initial screen and dictating the switch of Middleton onto Harden, and then Embiid was there for screen No. 2, dislodging Middleton to put Philadelphia's top duo in the spot they wanted to be in — a two-on-one matchup, Brook Lopez dropping, Harden and Embiid moving downhill toward the rim.

Opposing fanbases might not like it, but it is why the Sixers' stars find ways to manufacture trips to the free-throw line late in games. Harden and Embiid combined for 13 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter alone, and though they often face charges of "grifting" and selling for calls, Saturday's fourth quarter was wrecking ball basketball. Passive in moments during the first half, Embiid caught a lot of passes from Harden in the fourth with a head of steam going, and with Harden dropping off passes on time and on target, all Embiid had to do was keep his momentum going, the Bucks helpless to do anything but run into him before he could score at the hoop.

This Milwaukee team is not the easiest matchup in the world for Philly, with Brook Lopez the rare center who can stretch Embiid out to the three-point line on defense while making him work for his points on the other end. Quietly, the question marks surrounding Middleton give the Bucks a problem of their own to solve. If he's exploitable, the Bucks risk playing two different guys for teams to hunt in crunch time between him and Grayson Allen. 

Finally, after watching so many teams punish them for issues like these in big moments, the Sixers have a guy who can do the same to their opponents. Having one of Middleton or Allen on Harden in isolation was a problem for Milwaukee throughout the fourth quarter, as all Philadelphia needed to do was work to get one of those guys lined up against Harden at some point during the 24 seconds they had each possession.

19 fourth-quarter points for Harden would suggest his scoring and shotmaking was the No. 1 factor in Philadelphia's victory on Saturday, and there's something to that, but it's an incomplete story. The issue for teams this season is that they have not been able to load up on any one specific thing for Harden the way they did last year, playing him to shoot a ton of threes and living with the results if he tried anything else. Over helping on his drives is asking for Harden to find the open shooter. Under helping on his drives is asking for Harden to get to the basket and score or get fouled.

While many have doubts about Philadelphia's hopes in the playoffs, take a gander at their crunch-time numbers and you might shock yourself. Quietly, the Sixers have the second-best clutch splits of any team in the league this season, sitting behind the Denver Nuggets and in front of the Boston Celtics. So much of that has come down to two-way brilliance from Embiid — they have been elite on defense when the game slows down late, leveraging his gifts as a rim protector. 

But another big difference between this year and seasons past is having Harden there to captain the ship when Embiid rests, and he has been brilliant in so many of those bench-heavy groups to open fourth quarters this year. Philadelphia is winning Embiid-less minutes with Harden on the floor by 2.3 points per 100 possessions, and narrow victories with the big man on the bench would have been enough to change the Sixers' fortunes in years past. The Sixers were +90 during his minutes in the Raptors series back in 2019 — a series he didn't play well in offensively — and +10 in the Game 7 loss Embiid played 45 minutes in. Embiid is not absolved from blame for their previous playoff defeats, but it is not overstating it to say winning the minutes without him is the difference between remaining a second-round exit team and an inner-circle contender.

Perhaps at this point, some people may finally start believing in them as the latter option. They have all the makings of a genuine threat to win it all — an MVP-caliber player, top-10 units on both sides of the ball, improved depth, and the right mix of youth and veteran experience. They have wins over seemingly every big title threat aside from the Celtics. 

And with Harden playing at this level, they have a No. 2 option who can live up to that label in every meaningful way. That may prove to be the difference. 

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