April 19, 2023
The Sixers are up 2-0, Joel Embiid is flourishing against double teams, Tyrese Maxey is fresh off a huge outing, and Tobias Harris has had an inspiring start to the playoffs. And in some corners of the Sixers universe, James Harden’s play is the only thing that really matters.
One day before the start of the playoffs, Harden described the ebb and flow of the playoffs to reporters, in a moment that was more prophetic than he probably realized.
“I’ve been in the playoffs 14 years. You lose a game, you feel like you'll never win again. You win a game, you feel like you can’t lose,” Harden said last week.
Philadelphia hasn’t lost anything yet, but Harden’s first two games of the series were received much differently. He was the stepback king in Game 1, the guy who exploited Brooklyn’s doubling of Joel Embiid, the multi-faceted threat who served as leader. By Game 2, he was a stumbling, bumbling fool, inspiring speculation about his health, his focus, and even his nighttime habits in the days before the follow-up.
The areas where Harden have struggled are obvious and real — Harden is 2/13 inside the arc in the first two games, a troubling sign for a guy whose burst was a subject of considerable attention at the end of last season. For so much of this season, it has felt right to declare that Harden is “back,” with Harden forming a deadly partnership with Embiid while putting together inspiring scoring barrages of his own. Has it all gone out the window at the wrong time?
If the Sixers think so, they haven’t shown their fear just yet. Doc Rivers tends to believe this is a team-created issue rather than a fault of Harden’s. At practice on Wednesday, he harped on a subject that has been at the top of Philadelphia’s priority list all season: spacing.
“We showed it on film today, our spacing was terrible the entire first half,” Rivers said. “Even when James did get to the paint, there were two of our guys standing there. In basketball, if you get to the paint, it’s okay if two defensive players are there. But two of your guys shouldn’t be there as well, because that makes it easier for them to help.”
It seems impossible that a spacing-focused team like the Sixers could lose sight of that goal, but Rivers says that’s a problem with numerous causes. There are natural ebbs and flows with focus during a long season, and when one message rises to the forefront, another fades to the background. You fix rebounding or transition defense or turnovers for a time, but you take your brainpower away for something else.
Philadelphia had spacing issues at times, though I’m not sure I see enough to suggest that spacing is the reason Harden has struggled to finish. I would go so far as to say this is a method to protect one of his best players from more criticism.
There are multiple examples of the Sixers practicing good (or at least decent) spacing habits when Harden has the ball in his hands with the intent to drive. Harden scored his only bucket inside the arc while on an island vs. Nic Claxton because P.J. Tucker recognized the situation and moved to the corner, leaving just Joel Embiid near the rim for a potential pass or rebound.
Later in the first half, the Sixers briefly had Paul Reed and Jalen McDaniels on either side of the paint, with McDaniels having forced a switch to get Seth Curry on his hip. By the time Harden starts his move toward the rim, McDaniels is flashing out to the three-point line and is open for a catch-and-shoot look. Harden’s attempt to sell a foul call against Curry undermine the possession:
This is a spot where the Sixers have a bit of beef. After Game 2, Embiid took up for his teammate as part of a series of comments on the officiating, noting that Harden had not been to the line yet this series.
"He was aggressive, it's kind of crazy that he's not getting any free throws,” Embiid said on Monday. “I thought he's been getting fouled a lot, and I don't think he's been to the free-throw line at all during these two games, which is kind of insane to think about.”
“Statistically, and this is more of a league stat, not our stat, the two guys that get fouled the most in the league – in the league – and it's not called, are James and Joel,” Doc Rivers added on Wednesday. “In the whole league, and that's a fact. So yeah, they're getting fouled, but [the Nets] also are doing a very good job of trying to keep their hands back as well.”
Rivers called out their transition spacing and lane-filling as specific issues for Philly in Game 2. One of the few examples of Harden heading toward the rim with two teammates in or near the paint was this transition possession early in the second quarter. It ended, you’ll notice, with Harden getting stripped before crossing the three-point line, and McDaniels only gets to the paint after the ball is lost and after flashing to the corner.
All of this is to say that Harden has his own work to do in order to bounce back as a finisher and paint attacker. If the officiating is holding him back, that’s something a veteran with his experience has to adjust to. If the spacing isn’t set up correctly on a given possession, Harden has the clout to wave players to where they need to be, and so often does in order to get the right matchup and configuration on the floor.
The good news, in the sense that there is some, is that Harden has at least proven capable of beating these long, athletic Nets defenders at the point of attack. He is getting where he needs to go and coming up short once he’s there. But the Sixers need him to start making these shots at some point, unless they want their postseason to end early once again.
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