For a moment, it looked as though the Minnesota Timberwolves might’ve found some juice. Anthony Edwards just splashed a midrange jumper over Tobias Harris’ outstretched arms. A 25-point lead was cut to just 18 points with a quarter left to play.
No, the outcome of the game never quite seemed jeopardized. But, it will take years for the Sixers to restore the trust that was fractured after their disastrous Game 5 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in last year’s playoffs.
Sure, two different eras of Sixers basketball bridged by a couple of pages on a calendar. Two vastly different primary ball-handlers, traded for one another. But, scars don’t heal quickly, if at all.
But like a new flame repairing the damage done by an ex-lover, James Harden checked back into the game, offering the safety that the Sixers and their fans never quite felt with previous iterations of their team.
The Sixers are scoring .919 points per possession against zone defenses this season — ranking 22nd in the NBA, according to Synergy. Even when the Timberwolves tried to feed on that weakness at various stages of the second half, the Sixers got the ball to their new hero. Positioned at the top of the zone, Harden leveraged the urgency Minnesota felt in getting hands up on him to feed Embiid, who was slotted at the free throw line. If that look wasn’t there, no panic. Harden just sprayed the ball around the perimeter to facilitate entry passes from different angles or drives from non-Embiid teammates.
Even if the ball found its way back to Harden, the Sixers were comfortable. Harden was in his natural habitat. With the shot clock winding down, Harden walked his prey to the right wing. Once he liked his rhythm, Harden scooped up some space for his patented step-back triple. He buried 2 of those in the fourth quarter, and 3, total, in the game. Two of them caught fouls, to add insult to Minnesota’s injury.
Harden scored 15 points on 6 isolation possessions, according to Synergy. That 2.5-point per possession pace is unsustainable in terms of efficiency. But, it speaks to what Harden is capable of doing in a one-on-one situation. He can paralyze a defense, rendering it incapable of stopping something that they can smell coming.
It isn’t all the scoring power that made Harden so majestic with the ball in his hands on Friday night, though. It was the gravity his aggression and reputation have that made him such a revelation for the Sixers. He has speed in small bursts. But, Harden weaponized it at just the right moments to do his damage. Whether it was in transition or in attacking gaps in a half-court setting, Harden cracked Minnesota’s interior defense. His wizardry came in waiting until the interior helpers caved away from the teammate he wanted to set up before rifling a pass their way.
There’s a direct correlation between Harden’s ability to bend defenses to his will and what the Sixers did with Harden as the catalyst on Friday night. He dished 12 assists, the Sixers hit 19 triples — a season-high. The Sixers, as a team, had 42 made baskets on 30 assists.
Harden arrived with trust pre-instilled in his teammates. It was theirs to lose from the opening tip. And the faith he put in them, they redirected to each other.
Time will tell whether “Scary Minutes” is an expression of the Sixers’ well-founded confidence in themselves or a brazen miscalculation of what they’re capable of doing.
Harden’s historic prowess for devouring one-on-one matchups is to this iteration of the Sixers what a stuffed animal is to a child on a stormy night. But, the introduction of any one variable won’t characterize “Scary Minutes”.
Rather, the culmination of how that variable inspires the other variables in the equation will.