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February 26, 2022

James Harden's Sixers debut showed all the ways he can help his new team

Sixers NBA

Two weeks of waiting for James Harden’s Sixers debut turned out to be well worth it. Philadelphia returned from the All Star break to deliver a statement in a 31-point massacre of the Wolves, and Harden played nearly perfect basketball throughout the evening, flirting with a triple double and inspiring smiles all throughout the organization.

Debuts don’t get much better than this one. And Harden’s opening act in a Sixers uniform managed to show off just about every way he can make life easier for this group, previewing what many hope will turn into a deep playoff run later this year.

Improved shot quality for Embiid

Nobody was more surprised by the difference Harden made on Friday night than Joel Embiid, who has had to grind, scratch, and claw to create inches of separation for most of his Sixers career. There were times where that was true because of [former Sixers player's name redacted], but there were many more times where Embiid simply had little help on the floor and had to do it himself.

All smiles following Friday's win, Embiid was happy to describe the new environment to reporters.

"I've really never been wide open like this in my life, seriously. The passes, I wasn't even expecting it, and it was just coming," Embiid said Friday. "Usually, I'm not used to getting those types of passes...but that's what he does."

There is no bigger target on the roster than Embiid, and as Harden has showed again and again over the years, he will hit you if you are open. He is one of the most creative and willing passers in the history of the game, and teams fear that as much as they fear his scoring ability. Minnesota's initial game plan banked on trying to get the ball out of his hands early, and that helped to minimize the damage early. Eventually, the floodgates opened, and the game was basically over after that.

All eyes were on pick-and-rolls involving the big two in the opener, and Embiid and Harden both did well for themselves, with Harden finding nearly every opening that was offered with Embiid getting to the right spots with the right pace to stretch out Minnesota. But frankly, some of the best looks of the night came when the Wolves committed two guys to prevent penetration, only for Harden to thread a pass into the paint anyway. How often has Embiid had the opportunity to catch a pass with a guy the size of D'Angelo Russell in front of him at the rim?

This was something we anticipated when I wrote about the trade the day it happened: "If teams choose to show high to stop Harden from turning the corner, it leaves Embiid in an advantageous spot on the floor — around the free-throw line with a smaller defender between him and the basket. Sometimes, that catch will be even closer, and if Embiid is getting guard-sized players in help positions under the basket, you can just forget about it." The Wolves would definitely like to forget about it.

Transition game

Harden's style of half-court attacking can be slow, methodical, even hard to watch for fans who aren't rooting for him and his team. Embiid's style is slow, methodical, and typically reliant on his own self-creation. That seemed like a combination destined to drag games out and move at their own pace.

They might get there in the playoffs, but this team was moving with a pep in their step on Friday night. Harden wasn't the only reason they got out on the break, and their ability to get stops played a big part in this new-look transition attack. But it was hard to miss Harden's contributions on the break, where he empowered players to get out and go with the knowledge that they'd probably be on the receiving end of a pass.

Nobody took advantage of that more than Tyrese Maxey, who was expected to be the transition leader for a lot of this season. While Maxey has the chops for that role, and Embiid helped him out with the expansion of his own game in transition, it was tough sledding being the only perimeter player who could reliably make plays on the break. With that responsibility taken out of his hands, Maxey was free to simply run at a breakneck pace, a change Doc Rivers thought suited him quite nicely.

"Guys aren't used to running and getting the ball, and [Harden] threw a bunch of them today," Rivers said. "The one thing we keep telling Tyrese, is we can get out out in the open court. If you just run, he'll get you the ball...that will be the biggest thing, the bigger change in us is because of James' ability to see the floor."

To put this into context with some numbers — Cleaning The Glass data estimated that the Sixers had roughly 23 percent of their offensive possessions in the Timberwolves game on transition plays. That's in the 96th percentile of all games played by all teams in the league this season, which is even more jarring when you consider that Philadelphia is a bottom-five team in pace for the season. It only took one guy to de-ice the plane.

(If you want more fun with numbers, the Sixers' halfcourt numbers were also some of the best of the season for any team. This was a comprehensive, elite performance on offense, and they haven't managed many games like that, especially in games where they shot poorly throughout the first half.)

Two ballhandlers? Is that illegal?

You don't score 28 points on all transition plays, and Maxey deserves his own portion of the credit for Philadelphia's excellent performance on Friday. He has had a remarkable year-and-a-half in the league so far, producing in spite of a constantly-shifting role, growing expectations, and the weight of propping up a team with a $33 million point guard having gone AWOL. This has not been as easy as he has made it look, generally speaking, and his achievements should not be boiled down to, "Hey, he gets to play next to Embiid and Harden!"

But seriously: he gets to play with Embiid and Harden, and he looks like he could kick ass doing it. Maxey has almost always been at his best when he is in his instinctive attack mode, not worried about setting up teammates as much as he is getting to the hoop and putting pressure on the opponent. Playmaking duties are nowhere near as significant as they were just a few weeks ago, and he can attack the game with a two-guard mentality.

At his apex, Harden was an elite offense all by himself even without much shot creation on Houston's roster outside of him, with the Rockets building a gallery of shooters around him and letting him go to work. But it's instructive that Harden's best-ever team was when he got a chance to play next to Chris Paul, both because Paul is a Hall of Famer and because it gave Houston options when possessions broke down. Sure, you can wall Harden off and send bodies to block off of his path, but now you're in recovery mode when the ball swings to CP3, who will murder you for stepping just one foot in the wrong direction.

The Point God he is not, but Maxey is more than capable of killing opponents who shift too far toward Harden. One of my favorite plays of the night was this possession in the middle of the fourth quarter, Harden lulling Minnesota to sleep on the perimeter. With D'Angelo Russell ball-watching and shading too far toward Harden, Maxey is ready to attack the space before the ball even gets there, and the Wolves have no chance to stop him at the rim:

Another fun wrinkle we saw in the second half of Friday's game was Harden being on the other end of his favorite action. With Embiid on the bench and getting some rest in the fourth quarter, the Sixers ran pick-and-pops with Harden as the screener, a look that Doc Rivers said they were only able to work on a little bit prior to the Minnesota game. It's a starting point with near-endless possibilities — Maxey was ultimately the finisher this time around, but any team that loads up at the rim may ultimately hand Harden an advantageous position as the trailer, and that's not a situation any team wants to find themselves in.

Don't expect Maxey to go out and get 28 points a night with this group, obviously, but don't discount the opportunity he has to focus on the best parts of his game. Simplification of role is the holy grail for basically any player that isn't an outright star, and Maxey might look closer to one playing off of two superstars in Philly.

Something from nothing

A lot of things went right for Philadelphia in this one, but they will play better teams and better defenses if they're going to make a run at a title this year. Tyrese Maxey is not suddenly going to be an ultra-efficient, 25+ points a night guy, and the Sixers are going to have games where they have to win by grinding out possessions instead of stunting all over the competition.

The good news? At his best, Harden is capable of rendering any defense you play useless, and he uncorked his signature stepback three over and over again in his Philadelphia opener, burying the Wolves under an avalanche of shots that probably felt familiar for an old Western Conference foe.

The Sixers haven't had a guy who could do that specific thing basically ever, even if there have been some gifted, all-time great scorers to suit up for this franchise over the years. There are a lot of tricks in Harden's bag, and I suspect he'll get to show off every one of them if they can put together a run that lasts through June.

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