Home Sports Basketball Practice Notes: Harden front and center against Heat in Embiid’s absence

Practice Notes: Harden front and center against Heat in Embiid’s absence

James Harden warming up

CAMDEN, NJ — The Sixers are preparing for life without Joel Embiid, at least for the time being. Doc Rivers told reporters on Saturday that there’s no timeline for a return, but that there’s hope Embiid can come back. Game 1 of Philadelphia’s second-round series against the Miami Heat is on Monday. Whether they’re ready to fight without Embiid or not, whether they’re equipped to salvage a game in Florida before returning home or not, the Sixers have no choice but to move with the time they have left to prepare.

Even without the superstar big man, Rivers maintained some degree of confidence that the other bigs on his roster could collectively manufacture positive impact. “We saw some things that we may be able to do without Joel. […] DJ and Millsap, the 2 Pauls, as we call them, they both had significant minutes in that game,” Rivers said in referring to a victory over the Heat without either of Embiid and Harden in March.

“I thought DJ’s height had significance in that game. And so that’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to play center by committee.”

It should be noted that Reed, one of the “2 Paul” duo mentioned above, did not play in that game, contrary to what Rivers suggested. But his macro-level point stands. The bigs that did play were a net positive in a game in which Miami had all of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, and Tyler Herro.

But, the regular season and playoffs are obviously different beasts. What may work in Game 1 might be countered in Game 2. Such is the nature of being without a superstar. So, Rivers would not commit to any singular or two-pronged Embiid band aid on Saturday.

“We may need all 4 guys,” Rivers said. “Even if it’s to burn minutes. One thing Miami is, if they’re nothing else, they’re clever and they are foul magnets.”

“We are not going to be shy with playing different guys. […] We’re worried about the last 6 minutes. That’s gonna be the key for us in the series and it will be for anybody, but definitely Miami.”

That’s a pretty vanilla statement from Rivers. The NBA is often criticized as being a game that comes down to crunch time more often than not. The playoff pace slows dramatically, thus theoretically making the games closer and more-hotly contested. But in the case of the Heat, his point is quite literal. Miami had a point differential of +4.4 this season. That suggests that they’re not as much a juggernaut as they are masters of executing their game plan in the guts of games. 

So, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that it doesn’t matter who starts for the Sixers in Embiid’s absence. What matters is the combinations of players used throughout the game to keep the Sixers within reach of victory in the final minutes.

Perhaps the less complicated question is how to re-define the offense in Embiid’s absence. The Sixers acquired James Harden at the trade deadline with the vision that he could be their true point guard. But with the centerpiece of their offense unavailable, Harden will have an opportunity to return to a role that has made his career — the catalyst of the team’s offense, as both the primary scorer and facilitator. 

“You disperse it out. We have James. We’re going to play more of a James-dominant offense than we have because we have to,” Rivers told reporters after Saturday’s practice. “We’re going to space the floor, we’re going to play in space more.”

Spacing the floor casts light on both the offensive philosophy in Embiid’s absence and who may be in line for center minutes next to Harden:

Still, Harden having to go from setting his teammates up before scoring to balancing duties as a primary scorer and facilitator is easier said than done. Harden spent his entire career with the Rockets as the unquestioned catalyst. He then vacillated between scorer and facilitator in his time with the Nets. He’s largely untapped his inner Chris Paul since joining the Sixers. Now, he’s tasked with going back to the Houston version of himself until Embiid can return.

“It may be harder for us than it is for James. I think James has no issue being more aggressive to score. He’ll still end up doing the same things, though,” Rivers said when asked about how easy it is to toggle between those mindsets.

“He’ll score, but James is such a facilitator with us because we have great shooting around him. We just gotta make sure we have the right people around James when he’s on the floor. That’s vital. We need great rollers for him because that gives him some impact.” 

Skeptics have been quick to diagnose Harden as aging rapidly in his short time as a Sixer. This writer doesn’t buy it’s as simple as “he’s just washed”. I think there are a number of factors unrelated to injury or aging that contribute to what’s been an underwhelming start to his career in Philadelphia. Perhaps with Embiid out, there will be some saving grace in unlocking Harden’s greatness if he’s returning to a role in which he won an MVP just a few years ago.

The Sixers aren’t trying to call home runs or diagnose exactly what has to happen ahead of time. They’re betting on their experiences without Embiid this season and taking it one day at a time.

“We won some pretty significant games, you know. We almost won the game in Golden State without Joel,” Rivers said. “So it’s possible, we have to just focus first on the two games in Miami and see what happens.”

That Golden State game actually saw a 39-point swing against the Sixers. They led by 19 points in the first half against Golden State sans Embiid. Then, they got their doors blown off in the second half to the tune of a 20-point loss. But to Rivers’ point, the Sixers have signature wins over teams such as the Grizzlies and Heat without Embiid this season.

“I told our guys, ‘we’re fine’. Obviously, we need him back at some point. But, we don’t know when,” Rivers said towards the end of his availability on Saturday.

“This is why we play everybody and this team has a great belief system. We’ve had a lot of stuff thrown at us this year with guys out. Maybe this is another test for us. But, we’re going to get over it. I can tell you that. This team will be ready Monday.”