At last, the moment you’ve all been waiting for.
The Sixers (35-23) visited the Minnesota Timberwolves (32-28) on Friday night. Philadelphia aimed to start their post-All-Star schedule with a victory in James Harden’s debut. Minnesota intended to build on a victory over the Grizzlies on Thursday in the first game of a back-to-back. Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tyrese Maxey combined for 89 points to power the Sixers to a 133-102 victory over the Timberwolves.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, Charlie Brown Jr (Two-Way), and Myles Powell (Two-Way) were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were not with the team.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, James Harden, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Timberwolves were without Malik Beasley, who was out with a non-COVID illness.
McKinley Wright IV is nursing a left UCL injury and was unavailable.
Leandro Bolmaro is on a G-League assignment with Minnesota’s affiliate and was out.
Chris Finch started D’Angelo Russell, Patrick Beverley, Anthony Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Karl-Anthony Towns.
James Harden was somewhat passive in his first few minutes as a Sixer. His teammates were trying to find him on the perimeter, and he was just as eager to get them involved instead of taking over. In the first few minutes of play, there was much comfort in high screens from Joel Embiid to open an angle for his new teammate to attack an edge in the middle of the floor. But, Harden was hunting passes to the weak side of the floor to open the offense beyond just the pick-and-roll game. It was a slow start, as it usually is with new moving parts trying to find their individual footings amongst pre-existing parts.
But perhaps part of the catalyst behind the slow start, and maybe why the gelling could take longer than just a couple of games, is that Embiid was making more of an effort to roll to the cup, rather than pop, out of the pick-and-roll. That, in itself, is something to which everyone will have to adapt. If Embiid is rolling, he has to become more comfortable with mapping his path to the rim. Harden has to develop chemistry with his new pick-and-roll partner.
But more than anything, the four other guys on the court have to adapt to the picture in front of them if they’re receiving kick-out passes from the ball-handler as Embiid rolls to the cup. They’re used to jockeying for a decent angle to make an entry pass to Embiid in the post. Or, they’re seeing vacant lanes to the cup because Embiid is popping off the screen. But with Embiid’s body keeping a helper in those lanes, the likes of Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, and other supporting cast members have to recalibrate their decisions. Not only is the driving angle much different with Embiid’s man taking up space, but the closest defender is also recovering to the shooter.
Maxey looked particularly comfortable attacking those close-outs on sprays out of pick-and-rolls and swing passes. Harris got up a pair of triples in the first quarter. That’s what you want, and the processing speed should pick up as the chemistry builds. The important macro-level development is that Embiid appeared willing to roll to the paint with Harden as the ball-handler. That’s something he’d seldom been willing to do next to previous primary ball-handlers, Maxey included.
Harden got his first Sixers bucket in poetic fashion. He hit Anthony Edwards with a stutter step to get him off-balance as he closed in on Harden in the corner. Then, the veteran hit him with a soft crossover, got his inside shoulder towards the middle of the lane, and powered through a foul for a layup. It was vintage Harden. And the Sixers — both the teammates on the bench and the management group observing elsewhere — enjoyed the bucket kicking off a new era for the franchise.
As the first half wore on, Harden grew more and more comfortable as a scorer. Most encouraging of all — he exhibited ability to register points across different levels of the floor. He got to the rim for layups, powered through multiple fouls, got to the line, and hit a pair of triples.
He even showcased a willingness to do the thing that people have criticized him for over the last handful of seasons. As Harris pushed baseline, Harden flared to the corner to create an exit for the ball-handler taking on interior pressure. Harris obliged, serving Harden a triple by the Sixers’ bench.
Time will tell if Harden really buys into that. Right now, he and the Sixers are in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. Harden has never really bought into relocating off the ball. According to Synergy, Harden spotted up on only 6.8 percent of his possessions in Brooklyn this season. But if he does commit himself to roaming more without the ball in his hands, the Sixers’ offense becomes a whole lot more dangerous. Harden commands a ton of attention as an isolation scorer. If defenses have to track him away from the ball, his gravity from just being on the floor will help the scoring flow elsewhere.
I am fond of the dynamics that Harris and Maxey had around Harden. Harris clearly wasn’t all that comfortable serving as the de-facto PJ Tucker, spotting up beyond the arc and patiently waiting for the ball to come his way so that he could rip it off the catch. He hit a pair of triples in the first half, but struggled to find his footing in the third quarter. He missed a couple of good looks from deep. When Minnesota went zone, Harris over-thought a couple of them off the catch, allowing the space to dissipate and then opting to slow the offense down by dribbling aimlessly.
I’m not sure I believe Harris’ role will be reduced if he struggles to adapt his decision-making off the catch. Part of it is the team’s depth at the forward spots. They simply don’t have an abundance of options to threaten Harris’ role if he continues to turn down triples. But perhaps more than that, you’re probably not going to bench a guy on a max contract with two years and change left on the deal. One thing is for certain, there’s no room for Harris slowing down the offense with indecision. There’s a grace period to get comfortable with a new, high-usage teammate. But, things only really slowed down for the Sixers when Harris caught and thought instead attacking close-outs or letting it fly.
Maxey, on the other hand, had no problem figuring out how to play with Harden. Not only was Harden an incredibly willing passer to his younger back-court mate, but Maxey was equal to the task. He attacked what seemed like quite literally every close-out, blowing by ill-positioned helpers to get to the rim for layups. It wasn’t just a few instances of such behavior, either. Maxey found those angles all over the court all night long.
Rivers broke his pact to stagger the Big Four so that 2 of them are playing at all time late in the third quarter, going to his all-bench unit to close the frame. I don’t have a problem with him letting his guard down up 25 late in the third quarter. It may pay off in the future to instill some confidence in that all-bench unit. But they swiftly got devoured, allowing the 25-point lead collapse to 18 heading into the final quarter.
But even with Minnesota feeling themselves a bit, the Sixes remained calm. There was no fear. All they had to do re-insert their biggest weapons to restore control.
And that was all it took.
They just put the ball back in Harden’s hands, and the game was over. The Timberwolves resorted to a zone defense — perhaps the Sixers’ biggest foe — to try to stop the bleeding. But, the Sixers had a tool to beat it — a bearded tool, at that. Even when the first shots didn’t materialize, they just got the ball to Harden and spread the floor. In his natural habit, Harden walked the foe in his way to the end of the plank and executed with his patented step-back triples.
The space Harden creates on those shots really is difficult to comprehend. It isn’t like he’s a lanky guy, either. There may be a near invisible stutter step in the move to create the initial distance before catapulting backwards with his left leg. But, it happens so fast that it’s difficult to tell. Maybe he takes a massive step backwards that just looks a bit awkward. At any rate, Harden, as if by magic, creates more than enough space to force desperate close-outs. The contact happens too late to alter the shot, and Harden adds insult to injury at the charity stripe.
One of Philadelphia’s sneakiest weapons is Tyrese Maxey running wide receiver routes in transition. The Sixers really have it down to a science, too. There’s one short pass ahead to whomever is open on one side of the court, and then Maxey releases ahead on the side the pass came from, waiting for the long hit-ahead for a layup. The Sixers cooked the Timberwolves on a number of occasions with those transition scores in this game. And Maxey converted a layup in such fashion to cap an 89-point outing for Philadelphia’s new Big Three. Somewhere, Merrill Reese declared it a touchdown as Maxey glided to the rim on the run-out.
The Sixers (36-23) will visit the New York Knicks (25-35) on Sunday. Tip-off is scheduled for 1 PM, EST. You can catch the action on ABC.