James Harden Home Debut Warmup

The Sixers (45-27) visited the Los Angeles Clippers (36-38) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to push its winning streak to 3 games. Los Angeles hoped to snap a 4-game losing streak. James Harden put up 29 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists to lead the Sixers in a blowout of the Clippers, 122-97.

Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.

Contextual Notes

Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, and Myles Powell (Two-Way) were on G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable. Springer is also nursing a sore left groin.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Clippers were without the services of the following players:

  • Kawhi Leonard (recovery from torn right ACL)
  • Paul George (torn UCL in right elbow)
  • Norman Powell (fractured Medial Sesamold bone in left foot)
  • Jason Preston and Jay Scrubb (recovery from right foot injury)
  • Brandon Boston Jr. (non-COVID illness)

Tyronn Lue started Reggie Jackson, Amir Coffey, Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, and Ivica Zubac.


James Harden got his first shot, a step-back triple, to fall with the heavy-footed Ivica Zubac guarding him in space on the perimeter. You would like to see Harden use his burst to zoom around slow bigs when they’re tasked with guarding in space. That’s just the advantage of being an elite ball-handler at the guard spot. Theoretically, you have the speed to get around much bigger players. But as the eye test shows, and as both Doc Rivers and Harden have admitted recently, his body is not all the way there. So, perhaps he didn’t feel all that comfortable trying to turn the wheels on. Still, it’s an encouraging sign to see Harden search for his shots early in games. Harden attempted 3 step-back threes in the first quarter, and exploded to the rim for a finish over Nicolas Batum, getting the foul call, as well. 

As the quarter progressed and Harden got hotter, he did start to show some signs of his old burst. Some of that may have been partially a result of the defenders in his way — one particular crossover in which Harden blew Robert Covington off the floor with burst stood out. But, Harden showed some capacity to change speeds on a dime. And with that tool at his disposal, Harden got to the free throw line 5 times in the first quarter. For someone who was not getting much benefit of the doubt in recent first quarters — times in which Harden was slower and more passive — he got the whistle immediately upon rediscovering the rockets in his calves and getting downhill

Matisse Thybulle had Reggie Jackson in hell early in the first quarter. He first picked off a pass by Jackson, taking it all the way up the court for a transition dunk. Thybulle then engulfed Jackson a few possessions later, eventually using his length to steal the ball from Jackson to create a transition dunk for Philadelphia. Those moments of brilliance are what make Thybulle’s bouts with foul trouble and unsuccessful gambles frustrating. He tries to force himself to be a great on-ball defender instead of being a master of his role.

The reality is that Thybulle is not yet a great on-ball defender. Those irritating tendencies speak to that. But, he would be infinitely more valuable to his team if he forced himself into being the best free safety on the team and, when ball-handlers pick up their dribbles, suffocating them with his wingspan to force live-ball turnovers. The on-ball defense is a skill at which he can grow, although his growth trajectory suggests he won’t grow all that much more. He’s of no use to the Sixers on the bench with foul trouble. So rather than getting in trouble for trying to over-compensate for weaknesses by being too aggressive on the ball, Thybulle’s best service to his team is being the Dennis Rodman of help defense.

Harden’s fire didn’t go out after his first stint of the game. He attempted and made three more triples. Beyond the lift under his shot, Harden’s pace held up, too. He cracked the interior with that speed, whipping the ball to the weak side of the floor to facilitate ball swings throughout his time in the second quarter. It was, by far, Harden’s most vintage half as a Sixer. It’s not a coincidence that it was also certainly the healthiest he’s looked in quite some time.

Aside from one low-IQ play you’ll read more on later, Paul Reed made the most of his minutes in garbage time. In 6 minutes, Reed registered 3 steals and 1 block. Even with the game already over, he put forth maximum effort. In the final minute of play, Reed ripped the ball away from the Clippers amid congestion in the back-court and flushed home a dunk. He’s going to have his warts. But, Reed can give you so much more than Jordan or Millsap can. He’s worth a real look.

Every member of the reserves is a huge wild card on any given night. That’s certainly not what you want out of a team with championship aspirations. But, the Sixers can be comfortable knowing that their starting unit, together, is just annihilating opponents on most nights. Plus/minus doesn’t capture the lineup’s production together. It’s not even a great measure of individual impact on a game, in my opinion, because it assigns value to an individual player relative to the performance of the lineups in which they play. But, it says something that the lowest plus/minus amongst starters on Friday was Tyrese Maxey at +14. If that’s the theoretical “weakest link”, you have yourselves a pretty darn good starting unit.

I agree with much of the discourse on Alaa Abdelnaby’s homerism. But, I had to burst out laughing when Alaa made the Frankenstein joke about Isaiah Hartenstein’s last name pronunciation in the final minutes of the game. Perhaps he just caught me late at night. But, I’m a sucker for a good dad joke. 


All the good will the Sixers built before Embiid left the floor was nearly destroyed when DeAndre Jordan checked in. In a 7-minute span in relief of Embiid, Jordan lost a battle with Isaiah Hartenstein quite handily. Towards the end of the first quarter, he fouled Hartenstein on a jumper for a three-point play. A few plays later, he didn’t get back in transition and let the young big get a layup on a run to the rim. In the second quarter, Jordan didn’t box him out on the defensive glass. That allowed Hartenstein to catch a Luke Kennard airball at the rim and score the putback. Jordan also had a number of defensive possessions in which he simply did nothing to get to the rim in time for a contest. In one particular possession, Jordan even had an angle to beat the Clipper driver to the rim. But he was slightly late and whiffed on a contest, affording Los Angeles a score at the rim.

The sight more discouraging to see from a veteran than being utterly unplayable as a rim-protecting big is that Jordan doesn’t make any effort to make up for his mistakes by doing the dirty work. Jordan had a number of opportunities to pursue loose balls and made no effort to scratch together those additional possessions for his team. Aside from devouring rebounds, it is hard to find any value in what Jordan gives this team on the floor. Anyone with at least one functional eye gets chills whenever Jordan tries to go up for a dunk, knowing he’s incredibly capable of blowing such rudimentary shots at the rim. Perhaps he’s a great locker room veteran. But, he can do that in the Udonis Haslem role. And look no further than the Greg Monroe days for proof that you can certainly lose a playoff series in the few minutes Embiid rests. But, Brett Brown allowed all other options to prove unable to play. Rivers has refused to give his young bigs chances up to this point. So, it’s increasingly easy to imagine him sticking with Jordan or Millsap in the playoffs. It will cost them games or a whole series because of failure to win at the margins. This time, Rivers won’t have any excuses.

After flourishing as a passer prior to Harden’s arrival, Embiid has gotten away from the exceptional reading out of double-teams. There’s probably an element of him trying to balance his own touches with feeding his teammates now that he has a co-star capable of scoring in bunches. But realistically, Embiid is probably trying to fill up the box score to maximize his chances at the MVP. Embiid undoubtedly knows he’s fighting tooth and nail for the scoring title. Nikola Jokic is decisively ahead in rebounding and assists. So, Embiid might feel like points per game is the one basic statistic he has a chance to lock up and bring to the MVP conversation.

There’s nothing wrong with that. When you work hard enough to develop into an MVP-caliber player, you getting your scores is usually the best thing for the team. But, there were plays in which Embiid caught the ball out of the face-up by the elbow and blatantly missed open shooters. Furkan Korkmaz was even waving his arms at Embiid on one particular play. It looked like Embiid saw him and even faked the pass his way before taking the shot himself. I don’t have any problem with Embiid taking an elbow jumper instead of dishing to Korkmaz or any other teammate for a triple. The principle, though, is not declining easy shots for your teammates. If you have Thybulle or Maxey cutting backdoor, that’s a pass you have to make. 

Harden almost inverts that tendency in his own right. When the isolation isn’t developing to his liking and he can’t find an edge to push the rim or is outside of his comfort zone as a shooter, Harden will eat up the vast majority of the shot clock before dishing to his teammates. Sometimes, that’s a force of teams sending late traps. There were a couple of possessions in which the Clippers sniffed Harden’s inability to get something going and sent traps as the clock ticked down to force the ball out of his hands. He’s just dishing to the abandoned to teammate in those situations. But, there are other times in which Harden will make that pass to a teammate who is just as disadvantaged and force them into a very difficult shot or a shot-clock violation. There are very few players on the team equally as equipped as Harden at making difficult shots. He’s putting them in near-impossible situations when he makes those late passes. 

This is just nitpicking on a night in which the Sixers blew the doors off the Clippers from the jump. But, they did not have great spacial awareness of Robert Covington in the second half. The former Sixer helped late on an Embiid turn-around jumper, sending it into the first row by the baseline. A short time later, Shake Milton thought he had evaded Covington. But, the Clipper recovered and blocked his three-point attempt. Covington is a very good help defender, but he’s not the ace some make him out to be. He shouldn’t be hosting any block parties. 

I’m all the way in favor of playing Paul Reed. But, you can see why Rivers doesn’t trust him. Soaking up some minutes in crunch time, Reed fell for a lift action on a Clippers after-timeout play and wandered away from the rim. Reed followed the decoy out of the lane. That allowed the Clippers to get a backdoor cut from Hartenstein for a dunk. If you’re going to earn Rivers’ trust, you have to be more heady than that.

The Sixers (46-27) will visit the Phoenix Suns (60-14) on Sunday. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.