The Philadelphia 76ers need James Harden to carry them, but can he do it?
There are few things in the NBA more valuable than time and space. Four years ago, it seemed like the Philadelphia 76ers had endless amounts of both as they faced the Miami Heat in a first-round playoff series with a setup eerily similar to Monday night’s Game 1 of the semifinals of the Eastern Conference: Superstar center Joel Embiid was out with a broken orbital bone and was hoping his teammates could extend the streak long enough for him to return to action wearing a custom face mask.
Ben Simmons was Embiid’s running mate in 2018, when he felt the young duo had a decade ahead of them to figure out how to pay for ‘The Process’, the then-radical vision of former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie , building a championship team.
The Heat were in the opposite situation, running out of time and space, and trying to squeeze one last playoff run with an aging Dwyane Wade before finally rebuilding around a rookie from that team named Bam Adebayo.
Four years later, a lot has changed.
Miami’s 106-92 win over Philadelphia on Monday at the FTX Arena was not just a manifestation of how far the top-seeded Heat have come in their restart, it laid bare what little time and space there is. It was up to this group of Sixers to figure out how to become a championship contender.
Simmons is now with the Brooklyn Nets, still dealing with the aftermath of his time under the heat lamp of expectations that came with being a face of the Process-era Sixers.
His replacement, 2018 MVP James Harden, was essentially suffocated by a lack of space on Monday night as he attempted to take over for the injured Embiid as he and his teammates missed more than 82% of shots at 3 points (28 misses of 34 attempts) they took against the Heat.
Much will be said about Harden’s lack of impact in Game 1. He finished with 16 points on 5 of 13 shooting, running his sub-25 point streak to 11 straight playoff games, his longest since coming out of the bench. for the Oklahoma City Thunder to begin his career.
Harden, 32, obviously struggled to get past defenders during his time in Philadelphia, and it sparked questions around the league: Did he drop a step? Is his injured hamstring still a problem? Can he recover his flurry in time to justify a maximum contract extension worth $223 million this summer?
Once Embiid was lost indefinitely with a concussion and an orbital fracture suffered in Game 6 of Philadelphia’s first-round win over the Toronto Raptors, the pressure of time on those issues swirling around Harden grew. accelerated.
But Monday night’s dismal spectacle was as much a referendum on the sorry state the Sixers are in without Embiid as it is on Harden’s current abilities, as he literally had no space to operate.
According to ESPN Stats & Information data, 12 of Harden’s 13 field goal attempts have been contested. He also teamed up nine times.
The average defender closest to Harden’s shot attempts was 3.7 feet, according to Second Spectrum; it was the third-smallest separation in a game for Harden this season and the smallest in a playoff game for Harden in two years.
If you’ve followed Harden’s career a bit, you know why that’s a problem: he needs space to function. He can create some on his own, even without the burst he had, but not when the defense has no reason to respect his teammates’ shot.
“I think I can be a little more aggressive,” Harden said when asked what he could improve on going forward. “They did a really good job showing only cards and elbows, showing their bodies and cluttering the ball when the ball screens came.
“But I think shooting is what paves the way for our whole team.”
The concrete manner in which Harden delivered that assessment was as important as the order in which he clearly diagnosed what went so wrong for Philadelphia in Game 1.
First, he put some of the blame on himself. Then he paid tribute to the Heat defense. Then he said the part that really matters without throwing any of his teammates directly under the bus.
That’s the silver lining for the Sixers: To have any chance of returning to this series, they’ll need Harden to show accountability and leadership.
“It’s a game, but things can turn fast,” said Harden, who was trying to give an optimistic note to a relatively young dressing room he was pushed to lead with Embiid out.
James Harden heads to the basket and throws the ball to DeAndre Jordan for a dunk.
And there’s some optimism that Embiid could return at some point in this series, but that’s mostly because he’s been so determined to play through injury and pain this season.
Embiid was at home in Philadelphia still battling concussion symptoms on Monday, sources told ESPN. To even think about playing again, he’ll have to progress through NBA concussion protocols and then get a good report on a fractured right orbital bone when he meets Wednesday, Game Day 2 in Miami.
If all goes as well as possible, sources said there’s a chance Embiid could play in Game 3 or 4 in Philadelphia while wearing a custom face mask. That’s what happened in 2018, when Embiid returned in Game 3 of what turned out to be a five-game win over the Heat and dubbed himself the ghost of the process.
But while the circumstances are similar this year, the feeling is quite different.
Everything seemed wide open in front of Philadelphia at the time. Their two superstars were young and still growing and growing together.
There’s a sense of urgency now that Embiid is squarely at its peak and Harden is trying to hold on to what’s left of his. There is also a weight that did not exist before, because of everything that happened along the way.
There is still time to find out. There is still room to create. But there are far fewer now.