A year ago, James Harden entered the playoffs with the Philadelphia 76ers having played 21 games with his new club, still adjusting to a new environment after coming through a blockbuster midseason deal.
On Saturday afternoon, Harden and the 76ers opened up this year’s playoffs against Harden’s old team, the Brooklyn Nets, and he couldn’t have looked more at ease, finishing with 23 points and 13 assists in 36 minutes in what became a 121-101 Philadelphia win to begin what the 76ers hope will be an extended run through this year’s playoffs.
“I thought that was one of his best games as a ‘catcher,’” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought he called a perfect game.”
The Nets, facing a significant talent disadvantage in this series following midseason trades in February that sent Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to Phoenix and Dallas, respectively, made it clear that their game plan was to do whatever they could to keep the ball out of Joel Embiid’s hands and force Philadelphia’s other players to make plays – and, specifically, shots.
“I mean, he’s the MVP,” Harden said of Embiid. “So it’s like, would you rather him score 40 points or live with us making shots?” It’s OK in any case. We’ll be ready any way.”
At least on Saturday, Harden and his 76ers colleagues made a lot of them.
According to ESPN’s Stats & Information research, Philadelphia shot a whopping 21-for-43 from 3-point range, including 15 uncontested 3-pointers, the most in any postseason game since ESPN started monitoring them in the 2013-14 playoffs. Furthermore, Philadelphia completed 68% of their passes in this game, the franchise’s second-highest rate in a playoff game since ESPN started monitoring that statistic in 2014-15.
“We worked on it all week,” Rivers said. “I give Joel credit because I thought he was patient, especially early on, and we sold that to him.” Whatever happens, you’ll end up with the same number of points. That is exactly what occurred.But when you start making everyone else better, and we have James making everyone else better, that gives us a very good team.”
While most of the focus was on Embiid, who ended with 26 points, 16 of which came in the second half, Harden was the one who led the charge to capitalise on it.
“Just trying to be aggressive,” Harden said. “They’re double-teaming Joel, so someone else has to try to make shots and be aggressive.”Simply put in the effort and accept the outcomes.”
While Harden struggled inside the arc, finishing 1-for-8 on 2-point tries and had numerous efforts blocked at the basket, his classic step-back 3-pointer was in top form, as he went 7-for-13 from deep, including 5-for-7 in the first half alone.
That set the scenario for Embiid to seize control of the game in the third quarter, scoring 10 of his 26 points as Philadelphia extended their lead to double digits – a margin that grew to as much as 25 points in the fourth quarter.
Overall, it was an amazing start to Philadelphia’s quest to reach at least the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2001. Embiid, who was named a finalist for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the third straight season Friday, said it was important not only for Harden to continue to be what Embiid has consistently been as the NBA’s best playmaker, but to continue being aggressive attacking the rim – even when, as he did in the first half Saturday, he has shots blocked or fails to score, because of how it affects the opposing team’s defence.
“Like I said, he’s by far the best playmaker in the league,” Embiid said of Harden, “but we don’t want him to settle.” I don’t want him to fall in love with simply that. We need him to be aggressive, and he was today.”That, I believe, is the key: not only being a playmaker, but also being aggressive, getting downward, and creating for himself and everyone else.”
However, the Sixers took 19 more shots as a result of forcing the Nets into 20 turnovers (which resulted in 31 76ers points) while only committing nine themselves, and they also had a 14-5 advantage in offensive rebounding.
After the game, Nets coach Jacque Vaughn had a message for the referees for Game 2 here at Wells Fargo Centre on Monday night, saying Embiid got away with a couple things in the first game of the series.
“Hopefully, they’ll be calling travelling and defensive three seconds on the big fella the next game,” Vaughn remarked. “I’m looking forward to that.”