Almost exactly 11 months ago, the Sixers were the ones sent back to the drawing board after blowing a 20-point second-half lead to the Los Angeles Clippers, who were without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
This time, it was George who found the mark on a high-catch, no-dip three-pointer right in front of the Sixers’ bench to give the Clippers a 20-point lead with three minutes, 37 seconds remaining in the first half. Los Angeles’ 20-point lead lasted all of 19 seconds. They’d threaten to separate themselves a few more times as the Sixers made their push back into the competition.
All the Sixers could do from the moment the basketball ripped through the nylon was chip away. Win every minute of action. They weren’t going to do it without Joel Embiid and James Harden. But, it had to start with some offensive rhythm. Who better to generate that than Philadelphia’s central duo?
“As I said the other day, leads get blown all the time in this league, and you just got to hang in there,” head coach Doc Rivers said after Friday’s comeback win over the Clippers.
Embiid dominated the scoring column for Philadelphia, putting up 44 points on effective field goal and true shooting percentages both above 60.
But, it was Harden who conducted the orchestra. Even before the Sixers fell behind by 20 points, he set the pace for Philadelphia’s offense. First, Harden established his big man, who got off to a 15-point first quarter. Harden got off the ball quickly when Los Angeles was slow to set its defense, executing hit-ahead passes for Embiid to score inside against mismatches.
And if the Clippers were able to set their defense, no problem. Harden was comfortable slowing things down. He waited for his teammates to move or for a screen to come. When the time was right, Harden shifted directions and upped his speed ever so slightly, synchronizing his movements through traffic with those of his partner in the actions so that the pass would be precisely at the right time and in the right spot.
It isn’t just that Harden’s timing or decision-making was excellent on Friday. It’s that he used one aspect of his game to feed another.
He pinched the Clippers’ interior defense all night long. Harden dared Clippers center Ivica Zubac to sit back at the rim as he, a 56-percent shooter on jumpers between 14 feet and the three-point line this season, glided around screens. When the game of chicken was too much for Zubac, he so much as slowed down his backpedaling or leaned towards Harden so as to lift ever so slightly. The bearded guy had him right where he wanted him.
“Teams playing drop and also switching, it’s all about the timing. When Zubac was in, I knew I could get that pocket pass every single time. I knew if I went to post, they were just going to double all the time. But, the pocket pass midrange jumper, that’s my shot. So, I’d rather have that than being double-teamed in the post and getting beat up down there. So, we just knew how to execute,” Embiid said after the game.
“And then as soon as they went to the switch, I think what we’ve gotten better at is just the timing. Knowing when he gets the iso, I get the ball at the elbow or I go to the post. That’s where we’ve gotten it, and just the timing, us working together, always talking. He’s been great. Been on him about taking more catch-and-shoot, and he’s been doing that.”
The Sixers still trailed by 12 points at halftime, leaving the second half for most of their turnaround.
Embiid scored 21 points after intermission. But, it was Harden who once again conducted the symphony. He recorded 11 of his 21 assists in the second half. Everyone was involved.
It wasn’t just that he got inside the arc or leveraged his shot-pass gravity to put the Clippers in a bind. It was that he was quick, using pace to draw help defenders ever so slightly out of position. The more Harden attacked downhill with purpose, the more the Clippers shaded or helped hard toward him.
Harden wasn’t looking for much. All he wanted was an extra white jersey to lean one inch towards him on the drive. Just think for a second about what to do with the ball approaching and the actual assignment stationed in the corner, ready to shoot. That split second, that extra half a step towards the slot and away from the shooter, was all Harden needed. He used that gravity he has, that extra attention his prowess necessitates, to create space for his teammates. And only when his presence forced the Clippers into positions of no recovery did he rifle the ball to his teammates for threes out of the drive-and-kick game.
After a 4-for-14 showing from the perimeter in the first half, the Sixers finished the final 24 minutes going 8-for-15 beyond the arc. They shot 5-for-9 in the third quarter, turning a 12-point deficit into a three-point lead. Harden had six assists in the frame.
“I think it’s more just a read, you just kind of read him. He’s just a talented offensive player. So, you know he’s either going to get to a position to where he can score or he’s going to look for his teammates. If he’s driving the slot, let’s say, then you know if you’re in the corner there’s a pretty good chance you could get the ball. It’s just about spacing and really knowing basketball,” Shake Milton said after the game of how to know when a Harden pass is coming.
“James is so unselfish and he does a good job with just orchestrating the offense that the ball’s just flying around.”
Symbolic of that unselfishness was Harden leading the Sixers with 69 passes made in the game. The next closest was De’Anthony Melton, who made 46.
It’s symbolic of more than Harden’s unselfishness. Friday’s win to cap the 7-0 homestand was the culmination of Harden’s willingness to reinvent himself as more of a point guard than a central scorer for the sake of achieving a team-centric goal.
“This is a generational player, scorer, that has taken and decided to be a point guard — still scores — but to be a point guard for this team. That’s hard to do; most people can’t do that, or will not do it is a better way of saying it,” Rivers said after the game.
“The fact that he is willingly doing it, running the team, organizing us, is huge for us.”
On Friday, just short of a year after blowing a 24-point lead to the short-handed Clippers in Philadelphia, Harden’s generalship led the short-handed Sixers back from a 20-point deficit against the Clippers on a frigid night in South Philadelphia.