Joel Embiid was already playing with torn ligaments in the thumb of his shooting hand. Then, in the final minutes of Philly’s first-round series, he suffered a concussion and fractured orbital bone, which will reportedly keep him out until at least Game 3 of the second round. That means the Sixers will need James Harden to turn back the clock against the Heat.
The once-revolutionary goalscorer has looked pretty common lately. In the first round against the Raptors, Harden averaged just 19 points on 13.2 shots per game, paltry scoring numbers compared to his heyday in Houston when he led the league in scoring three times, won an MVP and was the star of a team that He made eight consecutive postseasons. During those years, he averaged 28.4 points on 20.4 shots. He also exploded and rose in the paint. a lot more than he does today:
The clips above are from Harden’s 2017-18 season and this year’s first-round series against Toronto. There’s a noticeable lack of verticality now compared to then, which is also reflected in his numbers.
Harden is making just 33.3 percent of floats this year, down from 46.7 percent the past four seasons. When Harden gets into the paint, he lacks the rebound he had before, and now he also lacks a turbo first step when he drives to the rim. Second Spectrum tracks a stat called “blow bys” when a player drives to the rim. It’s in the name. During Harden’s final season in Houston, he outscored his defender on 48.2 percent of his drives in which he attempted to score. This season, he is down to just 33 percent.
Those kinds of statistical dips have transformed him from a generational outlier to a regular All-Star. Even when he drives to the basket now, the 32-year-old is shooting just 48.1 percent of his driving layups compared to 55.7 percent over the last four seasons. At this point in his career, teams aren’t as intimidated by Harden as they used to be. They don’t panic when he is isolated. His defense does not need to offer help so strongly. And now Embiid, Harden’s security blanket since he arrived in Philly, will miss at least two critical playoff games and maybe more. That means the pressure will shift to Harden to take the load and carry the Sixers. The question is whether he still has enough juice to pull it off.
Harden is self-aware. Whether his decline is due to persistent hamstring issues, conditioning or simply age, he has adjusted his game to his current condition. Harden passes the ball 68 times per game, more than 15 per game since he was with the Rockets, according to Second Spectrum. His scoring is down a lot since he left Houston, but his assists are up to 10.5 as a Sixer after averaging 7.7 as a Rocket. The fact that Harden is embracing this role suggests that the next five years of his career will make him look more like a pure point guard, which is what the Sixers really need. Ben Simmons was his point guard until late in games, when he became a non-shooting center with a contact allergy. Seth Curry is a great presence off the ball, but not a leader. However, Harden accepted the role. Except now, without Embiid, the Sixers need him to temporarily transform back into his old self.
The Heat just forced Trae Young to more turnovers than shots in their first-round series against the Hawks. Erik Spoelstra mixed coverage, but most of the time Miami traded a lot of effective defenders to Trae, regardless of what Atlanta came up with.
The above play was recently detailed by Basketball News’ Nekias Duncan as an example of Miami’s best defense: PJ Tucker applies full-court pressure on Young, and then, through a series of on-ball screens, the Heat switch without problems to Bam Adebayo and Jimmy. Butler on him before he gives up the ball. Bam, Butler and company then hold off Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter to force a turnover. Add a deep group of guards and wings, and Miami has enough quality defenders to neutralize any offense.
Harden will see a defense like this starting in Game 1 on Monday. During the regular season against Miami, Harden was the ball handler on 39 pick-and-rolls. The Heat switched screens in 22 of them, according to Second Spectrum. However, now Harden will no longer have Embiid to throw the ball at him, and he will be forced into more isolations, a longstanding staple of his game:
James Harden isolates
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Harden is generating 1.06 points per isolation, down from 1.14 the past four seasons. It’s just another number that is indicative of his regressive play.
With Embiid gone, the spotlight will shine on Harden’s game and whether he’s capable of shouldering the scoring load, but the onus isn’t just on him against the Heat. Tyrese Maxey, not Harden, took the most shots other than Embiid in the first round. Following his sensational sophomore season, his play immediately translated to the playoffs, where he averaged 21.3 points in 42 minutes in the first round.
For the most part, Maxey excels playing Harden and Embiid by running on the open floor, cutting and repositioning.
Maxey scored 25 points in Philadelphia’s final win over Toronto, repeatedly dribbling from 3-point range and forcing the defense to respect his shot. With more room to play, he attacked decisively to get into the paint. And since Harden runs the show, he tends to be defended by a weaker player. There will be more times in the Heat series where Maxey needs to take the keys and create for himself.
The same goes for Tobias Harris, who is a candidate to be defended by a smaller defender like Max Strus or Duncan Robinson in this series, depending on lineups. The Hawks fed De’Andre Hunter against undersized Heat players in the final round.
For at least the first two games, we’ll probably see more Paul Reed in Philly lineups, too. Charles Bassey also practiced Saturday with the Sixers, so he could be available as a backup center. Unless Doc Rivers decides to play veteran DeAndre Jordan, much to the chagrin of Philadelphia fans, Harden will mostly be operating with two great youngsters in the pick-and-roll. Harden and Reed teamed up for just 40 pick-and-rolls this season. Bassey and Harden have never played together. Even Jordan has projected Harden just 77 times. Neither pairing was as efficient together.
Harden and Embiid generated 1.15 points per pick-and-roll, an incredible mark this season. Of the 35 combos that executed at least 500 pick-and-rolls, they ranked first in the entire NBA for efficiency, according to Second Spectrum. While Harden’s scoring numbers have dropped, this number serves as a reminder that when he’s at his best, he’s still one of the best ball handlers in the NBA.
That’s why the Sixers signed Harden. To run point guard. Last season, Embiid’s most frequent pick-and-roll partner was Tobias Harris (7.8 per game). His highest mark under Ben Simmons came in 2017-18 at 4.9. And Embiid and Jimmy Butler posted just 6.5 per game.
Harden brings out a new side of Embiid, just like Maxey does. There has been some question as to whether the Sixers should extend Harden, who is eligible for a four-year, $233 million deal this summer. The contract would pay him a whopping $61.7 million when he is 38 in 2026-27, so he could become a liability going forward. But with Embiid producing at an MVP level, there should be no question the Sixers will re-sign their pick-and-roll partner if he’s willing. He remains one of the best playmakers in the NBA.
Harden has already shown his willingness to change his habits on the court. For now, with Embiid gone, the Sixers need their star shooting guard to get back to his old scoring ways. They need it to be a bucket. They need him to be the Beard.