James Harden steps to the free throw line, December 23, 2022; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

You don’t need to look long or hard to find Doc Rivers giving silent edicts on the sidelines. Make, miss, or turnover, he’ll give the same circular motion with his hand. He wants the five Sixers on the floor to run, almost regardless of the situation.

His Sixers playing faster does two things. First, it gets them into early offense. That might lead to a quick touch for Joel Embiid before the opposing defense has a chance to load up against Philadelphia’s best player. Second, if it doesn’t redeem a quick touch for Embiid, it might generate an easy layup or an open three elsewhere on the court.

In order to entitle themselves to those advantages, though, the Sixers have to be willing to play quicker.

That is, as quick as or quicker than they played in the regular season.

And a hell of a lot quicker than they played in the first round.

The Sixers and Nets played the slowest paced series of the first round, according to NBA.com. Philadelphia finished 27th in the league in pace in the regular season, and even that mark was nearly seven units quicker than the speed with which the Sixers have operated in these playoffs.

That slowed pace dries up offense regardless of context. According to NBA.com, the Sixers attempted nearly 100 more shots with between zero and four seconds left on the shot clock than any other team in the NBA this season, a league-leading frequency of 12.5 percent. The gap between their frequency and the second highest frequency was as big as the difference between the second highest frequency and the seventh highest frequency. You can’t even justify that by saying the results were adequate, as Philadelphia sported a 47.3 effective field goal percentage on shots taken very late in the clock. That figure would’ve ranked dead last in the NBA by a mile.

The trend has matched thus far in the playoffs. Most attempts very late in the shot clock, highest frequency by a mile, fatally inefficient shooting.

Philadelphia averaged just 9.8 fast break points per game in the first round, per NBA.com. That was last among the 16 teams. The Sixers tied for eighth in the league in fast break points per game in the regular season, averaging nearly five more per game than their playoff output thus far.

The more the pace slowed, the easier it was for the Nets to get back and set up as the Sixers advanced the ball down the floor. Therefore, the fewer high-quality shots Philadelphia found in transition.

The transition play is more about effort and engagement, finding the best immediate way to get the ball up the court. Either the Sixers will execute with heightened urgency as easy baskets grow increasingly difficult to come by, or they won’t.

It is the halfcourt play that requires some soul-searching.

For a team that went up against the shot clock so much in the first round, the Sixers actually ranked in the top five in passes made per game thus far in these playoffs, per NBA.com. But, that can be deceptive when you factor in inbound passes, short outlet passes off of defensive rebounds, and junk passes at the top of the floor while the offense gets situated.

While too many of Philadelphia’s shots came very late in the clock, the issue is the timing and placement of the preceding pass:

Harden makes the pass to Embiid with eight seconds left on the shot clock. That, in itself, isn’t a problem. That’s a lot of time to work with. It’s that he’s catching the ball a couple steps behind the three-point line with eight seconds left. Embiid has really cut down his three-point volume, but you don’t mind him taking the occasional triple. But, if Embiid’s goal is to get to his sweet spot around the elbows or closer, he’s having to eat time to get there.

It is possessions like that one that stapled a pair of rough stretches for Philadelphia in that first-round series. The first, a 16-6 run by Brooklyn over nearly fives minutes in the second quarter of Game 2. The game was tied at 29 prior to that offensive slog. The second was a 35-18 third quarter in Game 3. The Sixers led by 11 at halftime, but trailed by six heading into the fourth quarter because of a similar affliction.

It’s not all because of Harden, although his over-dribbling on the perimeter has wasted time. It’s not all about Tyrese Maxey, who over-dribbles as he tries to determine whether he can make a post-entry pass, can get downhill, or has to self-provision a jumper. Embiid also deserves a share of the blame, taking too long to toggle between attacking and reading help or making a move with the ball to invite the help so that he can make a pass against an extra layer of pressure. As does Tobias Harris, who has a tendency to chew up precious seconds as he sizes up his defender.

The problem isn’t necessarily that those players reduce the offense to a bunch of shots late in the clock. You can get a great look against the final moments of the timer. It’s that too many of their late-clock shots are under duress because of the processes that result in those shots.

The good news is that the Sixers have more than enough mechanisms to break that habit. The jarring news is that they don’t seem to recognize the problem quickly enough and use those tools to patch the holes in the ship before it starts to sink.

It starts with Embiid, who, per Synergy, outperformed his expected output per shot by .13 points on jumpers up to 17 feet out, .18 points on shots as a roller out of the pick-and-roll, and .04 points on post-ups.

There’s no reason they can’t get into early pick-and-rolls or drag actions, especially with Harden on the floor. There’s no reason they can’t try to find an Embiid post or elbow touch early in the shot clock. Those things require some early actions or screens to free him up, and that means everyone has to act with heightened urgency.

There’s no reason Maxey and Harris can’t speed up their decision-making when the ball is in their hands. 

There’s no reason Harden can’t get off the ball quicker, or call up a screener to draw a switch that he likes and assert himself as a scorer.

Harden’s share of all of this is partially about him and partially about a bigger-picture issue, though. The bigger picture is that the Sixers sometimes don’t get great looks late in the clock because their spacing isn’t always good enough as time becomes more and more precious.

Take this possession late in Game 4 against the Nets as an example:

There are three players, including the two best shot-creators, positioned high on the floor and two players close to each other on the strong side with less than five seconds left on the shot clock. The most reasonably spaced Sixer is Melton, and Mikal Bridges is within two foot steps of recovering perfectly to him. If you’re going to have two shooters spread high and the ball on one side, the other two guys should clear out so that the ball-handler can work with an empty corner.

Speaking of the ball-handler, Harden actually got a decent look on a blow-by on that possession, but he missed short.

And that brings us to another point.

As much as it isn’t all on Harden to get Philadelphia into its offense quicker going forward in these playoffs, he needs to be worlds better for the Sixers to have a chance.

17 points, six rebounds, and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5:1 over a playoff series isn’t bad at all, even if it’s a notable step back from what Harden did in the regular season.

It’s when you peel back layers of his play that you find the concern. 42 percent on threes against the Nets is excellent. 26 percent on twos against them is horrific. Even more damning is that Harden shot 22 percent on attempts inside of 14 feet.

There are two reasons that that trend sustaining would be fatal. First, you obviously just can’t have that many shots close to the rim end with zero points.

Second, but at least as concerning and perhaps more important, is that such a spiral will result in the Boston Celtics and other potential playoff opponents playing Harden as a jump-shooter. In other words, they’ll take away his perimeter game and force him to pass or drive. If Harden can’t make defenses pay for that with better touch closer to the rim, he’ll be severely limited in how he can positively impact a series.

In fairness, some of the struggle on shots around the basket can be attributed to spacing. Possessions like the one above take away Harden’s lefty drives because helpers are loaded up on that side of the floor. If poor spacing doesn’t clog up driving lanes entirely, it allows helpers to venture closer to the driving lanes and latch onto the ball-handler as he makes his way to the cup.

But, even when you clear out the strong side and give Harden room to operate, he has to have the touch to finish around the rim. That feel betrayed him on would-be easy shots up close in the first round, and it can’t happen with anything close to the same frequency it did going forward.

Would it be nice if Harden’s scoring woes weren’t exacerbated by mind-boggling turnovers in the same game? Sure. Players with his level of usage tend to have higher turnover rates. That’s ultimately the downside of Harden’s style, and it always has been. On his worst day of the week, Harden’s seven-turnover brick fest grinds your offense to a screeching halt. But, on the other six days of the week, he’s a walking 20-plus-10-plus double-double capable of engineering a top-five offense by himself.

The question isn’t whether he can eliminate the bad games entirely. It’s whether he can find a middle ground between the extremes so that you don’t have to worry about his bad day falling on a Game 7.

The Sixers were third in offense in the regular season. They were eighth in offense in the first round of the playoffs, sporting a rating that would’ve ranked outside of the top 10 in the regular season, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Philadelphia needs to improve upon that figure. The Sixers can do so by eliminating those stretches of flat-lining offense. But, it’s going to require getting into the offense quicker and Harden being much better.

Otherwise, the party is going to end the way it ritualistically always has.


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