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December 24, 2022

Joel Embiid and James Harden's growing partnership shines vs. Clippers

The Sixers' two biggest stars are finally starting to mesh.

Even James Harden — top-75 player of all time, a former MVP, and one of the most decorated players in the league today — can struggle to find the words to sum up a new achievement. After a 21-assist performance against the Clippers, one of the best games of his brief tenure in Philly, Harden found himself tied with Mo Cheeks and Wilt Chamberlain for the Sixers' single-game assist record. And after sharing his love for his former OKC coach and a legendary Philadelphia big, Harden ended his thought with a challenge to himself.

"Keep going," Harden said Friday. "There are more records."

"I said it the other day, this was a generational player, scorer, that has taken and decided to be a point guard," Doc Rivers added. "Still scores. That's hard to do, most people can't do that or will not do it is the better way of saying it. The fact that he is willingly doing it, running the team, organizing us, is huge for us."

What makes Harden's record a bit more special, at least from a team-first perspective, is that this one did not come at the expense of touches and dominance for their other star. It was a game the featured Joel Embiid inflicting maximum pain on the Clippers for most of the night, the big man dropping an efficient 44 points on L.A. 

When Embiid and Harden first teamed up, their partnership inspired a lot of groans from opposing fanbases. Two of the NBA's most notorious free-throw machines on one team? It was a recipe for eye-gouging games that took far too long to finish. And sure, there have been ref-baiting moments and grifting and hard-earned trips to the line rolled into each game. But what distinguishes the best Embiid and Harden games is the metronome consistency, and the methodical nature of the destruction they cause in the middle of the floor.

Everybody tends to defend these two a bit differently. The Sixers knew coming into the game that L.A. would not want to switch Ivica Zubac too often, as that creates a bad matchup on either end of the switch. Knowing Zubac would be dropping, the Sixers came into this game anticipating that their guards would be able to get downhill and, if not score, at least absorb pressure to find opportunities elsewhere.

Harden and Embiid worked that matchup beautifully. They ran side pick-and-rolls that drew Zubac to the middle of the floor, giving Embiid a clear shot at the basket. They used handoffs to change the angle the Clippers were defending from, getting Embiid deeper catches that were much harder to double. And as the Sixers began bludgeoning them with the Harden/Embiid combo, they did eventually try to switch even with Zubac in the game. The hope was to have him up closer to Harden in an attempt to cut off his driving/passing lanes and prevent Embiid from getting the ball in the first place.

No dice.

What stands out here, halfway through the fourth quarter of an ultra-tight game, is the speed both guys are playing at. No dawdling, no hesitation, just downhill basketball. Neither half of the partnership draws their strength from pace, but both men are playing with purpose here. 

Philadelphia's tempo has been a huge point of emphasis for the group, and it was a big talking point for the group at halftime of the Clippers game. The pace of play is something they keyed in on after a first half that left them all wanting more. And it means something different depending on the possession — it's not just running on every miss, it's also attacking with speed, reading the floor quickly, and keeping the pieces of this offense connected.

Their ability to win early and win often stems from the improved understanding between these two men. Though Philadelphia immediately saw the benefits of the Harden/Embiid combo last season, time together has created a play-to-play fluidity they lacked in the early days. They're constantly poking and prodding each other looking for the edge on the opponent — once or twice a game, the two of them huddle together during stoppages and talk over a play or a read that was missed, turning a bit of initial frustration into productive dialogue. 

"Constant work, constant work. Talking about it, communication, go out there, do it," Harden said Friday. "Obviously, you want to see each other succeed, so if I ask him something or tell him something and vice versa, he'll do it." 

Between the reps, the chatter, and their combined talent plus intelligence, they can walk into a game against the Clippers and problem-solve on the fly. And that's what would make you fearful if you're an opponent. It's not just that they have enough talent to punish you, it's the growing ability to read and feel the game as partners, moving as one rather than deliberating and feeling each other out.

"The game tonight kind of offered both perspectives as far as teams playing drop and also switching," Embiid said after the game. "It's all about the timing. When Zubac was in, I knew I could get that pocket pass every single time, and I knew if I went to post they were just going to double all of the time. That pocket pass midrange jumper, that's my shot, I'd rather have that than getting double-teamed in the post and getting beat up down there."

"As soon as they go to the switching, what we've gotten better at is just the timing. Knowing when he gets the iso, or I get the ball at the elbow, or I go to the post, that's where we've gotten at. Just the timing, us working together, always talking, and he's been great. Been on him about taking more catch-and-shoot, and he's been doing that."

If he was in a groove prior to Harden's return, Embiid has gone to another level entirely since getting his lead guard back. In the eight games since Harden rejoined the lineup, Embiid is averaging 36.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game on 56 percent from the field, pulling off a blend of volume and efficiency that is breathtaking to watch every night.

In spite of a 1-4 start and a November filled with injuries and absences, the Sixers have discovered themselves as we near the end of the calendar year. They have climbed within striking distance of the Eastern Conference leaders, just two back in the loss column from the Bucks and Celtics. They may also be on the verge of a boost to the lineup — Doc Rivers shared Friday that Tyrese Maxey had a good day at the facility on Thursday, inspiring hope that their rising star could be back on the floor soon.  

The first six wins of the homestand felt as nice as all wins do, but this one felt different. It was two stars operating at a high level, operating together, operating the way outsiders hoped they might when the season began. Not a bad Christmas gift for Sixers fans. 

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