For the first time in nearly five weeks, James Harden will presumably suit up for the 12-11 Philadelphia 76ers when they face the 6-17 Houston Rockets on Monday. Multiple reports indicate the All-Star guard has been targeting this homecoming to return from a tendon strain in his right foot after missing the past 14 games.
He’s currently listed as questionable, as are Georges Niang (right foot soreness) and Jaden Springer (right quad strain). Tyrese Maxey remains out (left foot fracture). Jae’Sean Tate (right ankle soreness) is out for Houston.
The Rockets enter this matchup playing some better ball as of late, going 3-3 over their past six contests, including wins against the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. On the year, they’re 28th in net rating (minus-7.4), 26th in offensive rating (109.7) and 28th in defensive rating (117.1). The Sixers are 13th in net rating (plus-1.3), 22nd in offensive rating (111.6) and fourth in defensive rating (110.3).
Harden’s re-emergence will surely be a boon to an offense that suffered greatly without him. During the 14 games he was sidelined, they fielded the 28th-ranked offense, though survived with an 8-6 record on the back of a top-ranked defense over that stretch. Harden garnering a hefty minutes load will probably hurt the defense, but his blend of scoring and playmaking as the lead guard invigorates the offense and eases the burden for Joel Embiid. And, scoring more often forces opposing teams into half-court sets, a harder context from which to score than transition.
While Houston’s frontcourt no longer sports Christian Wood or Daniel Theis, both of whom struggled mightily defending Embiid last year, the big fella should be able to replicate his success of 2021-22. In two games against the Rockets, Embiid dropped a combined 62 points (69 percent true shooting), 23 rebounds, 16 assists, four blocks and steals, despite playing just 56 total minutes. Whether he’s working from the high post or tangoing with Harden in ball-screens, I expect him to thrive against an undersized, ill-equipped big man rotation of Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr., Bruno Fernando and Kenyon Martin Jr.
For the second straight season, the Rockets are last in turnover rate, which should further allow the Sixers to find some offensive footing, even beyond Harden’s reintroduction to the lineup, by producing fast-break chances. Given Philadelphia is seventh in forcing turnovers, headlined by Melton and Paul Reed, it’s in line for a profitable evening in that regard. Houston lacks considerable cohesion on both ends, often botching defensive coverages or being unsure of what offensive sets to run. That’s a boon for the Sixers.
It does, however, love to jack up long balls, namely Smith, Jalen Green and Eric Gordon. The Rockets rank ninth in overall three-point rate and fourth in frequency of above-the-break threes. They’re only 20th and 19th in accuracy in those respective categories, but this is a team that will let it fly and could catch fire, especially Green. I’d imagine it’s prudent to run those dudes off the arc, seeing as though Houston is 28th in two-point percentage (51.2). Plus, it’s rarely a poor idea to funnel the defense toward Embiid. Granted, his defensive motor has been all across the map thus far this season.
Philadelphia’s last loss to Houston came Jan. 3, 2020. It’s won four in a row, including a pair of blowouts a season ago. I expect that to continue, based largely on the massive advantage Embiid holds inside and the turnover-heavy nature of the Rockets against the Sixers’ pesky defensive playmakers.
When: 8 p.m. EST
Where: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
Watch: NBC Sports Philly
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic