Roughly midway through the fourth quarter Friday, the Sixers were trying to seal a win over the undermanned Warriors. With his team up eight, James Harden made an incredible play look fairly routine.
It’s what great players do.
Harden grabbed a ball off the rim and almost instantaneously turned and tossed a pass nearly the length of the court into Danuel House, Jr’s bread basket. Touchdown, Sixers.
Is there any player that finds those look-ahead passes better than The Beard?
“Tom Brady’s pretty good [at deep passes],” Doc Rivers joked. “But yeah, James, he’s an elite passer. We forget how good James is sometimes. ... We forget this guy is one of the greatest players to ever play. And to do that with the ball, he had to be a great passer, and he’s doing that.”
We’ll deduct a couple points from Doc for not using Jalen Hurts of the 13-1 Eagles as an example, but the point stands — Harden, even at 33, can do things on a basketball court that few others can.
And along with Joel Embiid, the Sixers have two players that routinely make special plays look routine.
Harden played in 220 regular-season games in Oklahoma City, 621 in Houston and 80 in Brooklyn. He had a revolving door of multi-time All-Star teammates: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook (again), Kevin Durant (again), Kyrie Irving.
Embiid had two multi-time All-Star running mates: Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler (you can throw in Al Horford if you want ... I won’t). The two-time MVP runner-up has played 348 games with the Sixers, 207 of which were played alongside Simmons and 40 with Butler.
It’s important to add this context when you consider Philly’s latest All-Star duo played just its 32nd game together when the Sixers beat Golden State 118-106 Friday night.
And the results have been mostly fantastic.
“I don’t know the amount of games we’ve played together, but it’s not a lot,” Harden said. “Every single game, we’re figuring each other out. Me getting the ball or him getting the ball; our pick-and-roll; how teams are guarding it. It’s like a game-by-game scenario. We just keep building on that. … Just game-by-game scenarios so that at the end of the season, we’ve got a package of things that we’ve seen and this is how we attack different defenses.”
Last season, the pair played 21 games together and posted a 15.9 net rating. In 11 games this season, that two-man lineup’s net rating is 9.6 and is scoring 117.7 per 100 possessions.
The win over the Warriors was just another example of how well the superstars are playing off each other. They combined for 61 points on just 38 shots.
Embiid, who currently leads the NBA in scoring, is averaging 39 points in his last five games with Harden back in the lineup. After a rough night in Houston (his return after missing 14 straight games) Harden is averaging 23.8 points and 13 assists over his last four.
Embiid and Harden have been able to put up numbers since their first game together. The last four games — all Sixers’ wins — feel different though.
It feels like they’re both finding ways to play to the other’s strengths.
“Time,” Harden said when asked what the biggest difference has been recently. “And just the communication we’ve been having, whether it’s with Doc or Joel or just everybody. ‘This is how we’re playing, this is what we want to do.’
“And even for myself, pushing the pace, getting the ball past half court fast and then having a couple more seconds to decide what we’re doing. But I think our communication has been on point, me and Joel especially, that pick-and-roll. … It’s growing.”
Say what you want about Simmons — and some of you say a lot — he is an outstanding passer, especially in transition.
But what Harden is able to do is on another level, especially in the half court.
For what felt like his entire career, Embiid never had a teammate that could throw him a decent entry pass. Harden’s passing arsenal is insane, including when it comes to something as seemingly mundane as dumping the ball down to a big.
With Harden as the head of the snake, the Sixers haven’t had much difficulty getting the ball to their “crown jewel,” as Brett Brown affectionately called Embiid. Whether it’s in the post or his new go-to spot at the elbow, the offense has run through Embiid — and he’s delivered.
And Harden’s presence and passing ability are enhancing Embiid’s game.
“It really starts with James,” Embiid said. “He’s been great as far as just kicking the ball out. The ball is not sticking. He’s been doing a great job of getting everybody involved. It starts with him.”
The Sixers got out in transition and pushed the pace during a crucial stretch in the third quarter Friday. With a seven-foot, 280(?)-pound big man, they’ll likely never lead the league in pace, but taking advantage of the speed of some of their players and Harden’s innate ability to find streaking teammates is a positive.
And even the big fella got in on the act.
After challenging a Kevon Looney layup with under three minutes to go, Embiid turned and ran, beating the opposing big man down the floor. After another excellent pass ahead from Harden to De’Anthony Melton, Melton found Embiid for a lob.
Frankly, it’s not a play Embiid makes often. To see him make it late in a game is extremely encouraging.
“Yeah, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in that one, if I’m being honest — in the pass or the big fella,” Rivers said with a laugh. “And it was perfect, so I’m very happy about that.”
And Embiid knows getting out on the break can help the team, even in the half court — as long as he and Harden are running things.
“I think that’s where it starts,” Embiid said. “And offensively, putting the ball in the right guys’ hands, and the ball is moving. If we don’t have anything, we know what to do. We go from the first action to the second action, even to the third action. So it’s been great. I think we’ve still got a lot to improve on, but it’s good to see what we’ve been able to do.”
Putting the ball in Harden and Embiid’s capable hands has been a recipe for success. We’ll see if more time together can lead the superstar duo to postseason success.