More Sports:

April 15, 2023

Quick Six: Sixers used James Harden and baseball practice to dominate Game 1

James Harden resembled his peak MVP form during his Game 1 performance from the Sixers, draining seven threes and dishing out 13 assists in the win over Brooklyn.

The Sixers managed to coast past the Brooklyn Nets for a 20-point victory in Game 1 despite the Nets putting together one of the great shotmaking performances in playoff history. How's that for a start to the postseason?

Here are a few of the highlights from the game and the postgame fracas behind the scenes.

James Harden's health was Philadelphia's biggest question mark heading into the playoffs, with the veteran guard sputtering down the stretch while dealing with Achilles issues. It would have been tough to dispel those concerns any quicker. 23 points on 21 shots isn't pretty, but Harden made fun of himself for his main area of weakness on Saturday.

"I couldn't make a layup," Harden acknowledged while trying to offer a window into his physical state.

Indeed he could not, and it didn't seem to matter. With Brooklyn sending the house at Joel Embiid, Harden was left to pick apart Brooklyn in constant scramble situations. He is overqualified for that job, and looking over the wreckage, Doc Rivers was thrilled to watch the balancing act from Harden in their opening game of the playoffs. In a postgame filled with baseball chatter, Harden was compared to a catcher by the head coach, responsible for calling the game and dictating the tone and tempo for Philadelphia. 

That's most evident with Philadelphia's bench units. Harden has been the second-unit captain for much of this season's second half, leading the group when Embiid hits the pine. According to Harden, that goes beyond simply being the best player on the floor, with his input on lineups holding weight with Doc Rivers. 

"Doc and myself just on the same page in the sense of, who's out there, who's going to be playing on the court, and what we're trying to accomplish," Harden said Saturday. "I think that group with [Melton], [Jalen McDaniels], Georges [Niang], and P-Reed, we get it. Defensively, we have to get stops, and then offensively as much space as we can, then I'll do all the work and guys just be ready to shoot, make plays and finish. Tonight was a great example of that." 

"That unit is going to be extremely key. Start the second quarter, start the fourth quarter, that's a big part of the game. If we can manage it and be even or even take the lead, that's a bonus for us."

Between Harden's 13 assists, his ridiculous shotmaking, and the calming effect he had on the offense in scramble situations, it was a hell of a start for No. 1. 

To put this loss for Brooklyn into perspective, here's a bit of historical context for their performance:

That's a yikes for me, dawg.

Philadelphia winning that game at all, let alone winning it by 20 points with reserves in for both teams in the final few minutes, is a demoralizing reality for Brooklyn. They played/shot about as well as they probably could have hoped for, and they were not close to winning the game in the end. That sort of loss is one you'd expect to happen if your opponent had an all-time great going god level. The Sixers just had a balanced team outing. Ouch.

Joel Embiid scoring less than 30 points in a game has felt borderline impossible for the better part of two years, but the Nets held him to 26 points on 15 shots in Game 1. The Sixers, of course, were absolutely thrilled with his performance, and at Embiid choosing to play team-first basketball rather than plowing through Brooklyn's double teams.

"He's going to get his buckets no matter what, that's just how good he is," Harden said Saturday. "And then we're making shots, we're attacking the basket, and we're just generating easier shots for us."

Embiid's three assists in this game massively undersell his passing contributions, and if he is as quick on the draw exploiting double teams as he was in this game, they could be on their way to the best Sixers playoff run in 20+ years.

Mikal Bridges had 23 points at halftime and looked completely unstoppable. He would finish with "just" 30 points, but more importantly, he was only able to get two shots up after halftime. The Sixers dramatically altered their plan against Bridges, going from letting him cook one-on-one to trying to show him a crowd as often as possible.

"He had a highway in the first half, in the second half it was a traffic jam," Rivers said after the game. 

Nothing complicated about that.

• The Sixers worked on something that sounds odd throughout the week leading into this series – pass accuracy. Rivers used a number of baseball-themed analogies at the podium on Saturday, carrying over from what they worked on during four days of sessions in Camden.

"We did a baseball thing all week where every pass was a ball or a strike," Rivers said Saturday. "We were throwing a lot of balls, and you miss those shots. But when you throw a lot of strikes, right in the [shooting pocket], you make those shots."

This carried into the game, with several on-target passes drawing strike (or strike two) gestures from players along the sideline. The proof is in the pudding for the Sixers, who turned the ball over just eight times compared to a whopping 19 for the Nets.

Who would have thought we'd get "B-Ball Paul!" chants in the opening game of the 2023 playoffs, or at any point in the playoffs for that matter? Not even Reed's biggest boosters could have been prepared for that development, with Reed building on a strong close to the season with a great first outing in the playoffs.

Philadelphia's second unit sans Embiid has been a giant sore spot for the Sixers throughout their recent playoff history, most notably as they trotted out Boban and Greg Monroe and a whole lot of stuff that didn't work in their 2019 defeat against Toronto. Paul Reed finished +5 in Game 1, and even if they only won by those slim margins for the rest of the playoffs, it might be enough to push them to a title.

Paul Reed managed to sneak in one ridiculous highlight before the game ended:

There were two unique perspectives on that Reed performance. First, from the likely MVP of the league.

"It was great, him and PJ [creating] extra possessions, and then I thought he did a great job screening, rolling, playing out of that dunker, getting easy passes and finishes. Made a great move behind the back that we probably don't want to see again. I'm just kidding — he can do whatever he wants, whatever works."

Second, from the man himself.

Never change, Paul.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports