March 30, 2023
James Harden's return to the floor against the Mavericks on Wednesday was a successful one, in the sense that the Sixers got a victory and their star guard played better as the game wore on. But as Philadelphia moves toward the all-important playoff run, there may be some more management of Harden's sore Achilles tendon than we first thought.
Speaking to reporters following the win over Dallas, Harden noted that this problem has bothered him for quite a while, with pain in the Achilles spiking recently.
"I don't know where it came from. It’s been bothering me for some months, I would say," Harden said Wednesday. "I just wanted to continue to play on it, and there was one point to where the last game I played, [it was] just really unbearable so I couldn’t even go out there. Six games left to finish the season off, finish off strong, then we get another week to prepare. I felt like tonight was the game to come back."
Harden's last game prior to this appearance, a double-overtime loss against the Bulls, was perhaps the worst Harden has played in a Philadelphia uniform, a performance capped by Harden essentially stepping out of the offense as the game wore on. Despite looking visibly off the pace in the first half of that game, Harden ended up playing 47 minutes in the double-overtime loss.
Deep into the season and close to their chance to make a run at a title in the coming weeks, the Sixers took that Achilles-related alarm and sat Harden for Philadelphia's entire road trip out west. Doc Rivers noted before the win over the Mavericks that Harden had been in the facility on Tuesday to get some extra on-court work in, and it appears maintenance is on the menu for Harden the rest of the way, including immediately after games.
"After the game, I went into the weight room and did some tendon-loading and things like that, for the Achilles, my lower body, my calves, things like that," Harden said Wednesday. "Tomorrow I’ll do something, after the game Friday I’ll do something, it’s just [constantly] making sure I’m on it."
Fighting to find a rhythm (and struggling to find his teammates) for most of the first half against Dallas, Harden would eventually settle into the natural groove he and Embiid have established in the pick-and-roll, making up for what he couldn't get done as a scorer by getting Philadelphia into their actions. It was a reminder of Harden's value to Philadelphia even in a compromised state, with clean looks easier to come by once he took control of the offense over the course of 48 minutes.
With just six games left to play before the dust settles on the regular season, there are arguments to be made both ways on how to handle Harden and Embiid, the latter of whom is battling calf tightness at the moment. The Sixers will likely err on the side of caution if any of their important guys are dealing with bumps and bruises, though Doc Rivers noted before the game that they prefer to be ramping guys up in volume as they head toward the playoffs, knowing the challenge they have on the horizon.
"We believe we ramp up now, not down, because we want to build up minutes," Rivers said pregame on Wednesday. "We want our guys, our main guys to be able to play 38 to 40 good minutes, instead of 35 good minutes and five tired minutes...we are probably way more focused on conditioning than we are rest."
Just one more thing for Sixers fans (and in fairness, the team) to have to think about as gut-check time arrives.
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