James Harden’s Sixers debut couldn’t have gone much better. As Philadelphia rolled past the Timberwolves for a 133-102 win, Harden racked up 27 points on just 12 shots (he went 5-of-7 from three and 8-of-9 at the free throw line), eight rebounds, and 12 assists to only two turnovers. The Sixers’ ball movement was buzzing as they tallied 30 assists on 42 baskets, and along with 34 and 10 from Joel Embiid and 28 points on 12-of-16 shooting from Tyrese Maxey, it was a great night for the Sixers.
Next up on Sunday afternoon, they’re finishing their road trip against the New York Knicks, who won’t be quite at full strength. Kemba Walker has been shut down for the remainder of the season, and Derrick Rose is sidelined for the next week or two after undergoing a minor procedure on his right ankle.
It’s been a disappointing season for the Knicks after they finished fourth in the East last season. They’re currently sitting in 12th place at 25-35. Julius Randle’s scoring efficiency has dropped from all areas of the floor (he’s down from a 56.7 true shooting percentage last season to just 51.3), their offense is lacking much rhythm and playmaking and ranks just 25th, and their defense which was integral to their success has fallen from ranking fourth last season to 17th this year.
The Knicks have fallen into a rut over their last few games as well, losing eight of their last 10, including their last four against the Blazers, Thunder, Nets and Heat. The Sixers are catching the Knicks at a good time to potentially grab two wins — first on Sunday and when they play again on Wednesday in Philly.
For the Sixers, the focus for watching this game (and the rest of the regular season overall) is how Harden continues to operate with his new teammates. Besides his drives to the rim and step-back threes, Harden’s passing was the highlight of his debut. He sent the ball all over the floor with quick, decisive passes (with the rest of the team often following along), sparked plenty of fast-break scores with accurate outlet passes, and made a range of nice pick-and-roll reads.
This is the kind of play where James Harden's excellent lob passing helps Joel Embiid, even if Embiid doesn't go up for lob dunks.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 26, 2022
Embiid slips to the rim from the DHO, Harden gets KAT to contest and lobs the ball over him, setting up Embiid behind the defense for an easy finish pic.twitter.com/9ETImVmIGw
As we continue reviewing the initial takeaways from Harden’s start with the Sixers, here are a few things to follow against the Knicks:
- Firstly, Doc Rivers’ rotations. Apart from a brief all-bench run when the Sixers had already established a massive lead, Rivers’ rotations and stagger patterns were good in Harden’s debut. He primarily built his rotation around staggering the duos of Embiid-Maxey and Harden-Harris, which is the right way to go. You want to stagger your best players and have one of Harden or Embiid to lead the offense at all times. Then you have Embiid supported by Maxey’s ball-handling and a few shooters, while Harden can lead the offense by himself surrounded by shooting and a bit of complementary creation from Tobias Harris. Will this continue against the Knicks, or will Rivers experiment any differently?
- Harden’s pick-and-roll partnership with Embiid is the key part of the offense to watch when they share the floor. They got off to a good start on Friday, with Harden setting up Embiid with timely pocket passes on short rolls into the mid-range, and finding Embiid around the basket on full rolls to the rim as well. The Knicks don’t have great defense at the point of attack either with starters like Alec Burks and Evan Fournier, so this could bode well for Sunday’s contest.
- The Knicks are allowing the 10th-most points in transition this season. Harden kickstarted a lot of fast breaks against the Timberwolves with his hit-ahead passes, and Maxey was often the beneficiary as he flew down court ahead of defenders. From catching slot cuts on the move in the half court to fast breaks, Maxey thrived playing off Harden with his speed. Look out for more similar plays in New York.
- Harden’s defense was solid in his debut. For the most part, he held up well on the ball, was pretty alert with his off-ball rotations, and did his part on the boards. This isn’t the part of Harden’s fit that matters most and we all know about his weaknesses on defense, but if he benefits from being more engaged with the Sixers and can produce any more defensive efforts like this, it’ll certainly help.
- Will the Sixers get much more off-ball activity on offense from Harden? His lack of movement and spot-up shooting has been the main knock on his offensive game for years, but he had some promising moments on Friday, including the play below where he relocated into space in the corner so Harris could find him for a catch-and-shoot three:
This is only a simple play, but exactly what the Sixers need from James Harden off the ball.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 26, 2022
Harris is driving into traffic, so Harden relocates into the corner so he's available for a pass and hits the 3. pic.twitter.com/3ILsMzamdl
It’s unreasonable to expect Harden to suddenly start running around off the ball when he never has, but it’s worth keeping an eye on him when he’s off the ball to see how much he’s relocating to find space and potentially hit a few more spot-up threes. It would go a long way to maximizing the offense and spacing around Embiid.
- The two main matchups for the Sixers’ defense on Sunday will be handling Randle and RJ Barrett. Harris’s defense hasn’t been as sturdy this season, but he has done a decent job against Randle in the past with the size to compete somewhat in the post and on short drives. Harris staying physical inside, supported by timely help from Embiid protecting the rim, will be key. Meanwhile, Matisse Thybulle can use his speed and disruptive hands to lead the Barrett assignment. Barrett’s play has been a bright spot for New York recently, with him upping his production to average 23.8 points a night and shoot 39.1 percent from three over his last 21 games.
- With the strength advantage and foul-drawing smarts Embiid has to use against Mitchell Robinson, this should be a good matchup for the big fella. When Embiid isn’t working in more pick-and-rolls with Harden while they share the floor, he should be able to find success inside when relying on more post-up play.
If the Sixers move the ball at a similar level to Friday, Embiid keeps dominating, Harden keeps firing crisp passes out of pick-and-rolls, and Rivers’ effective staggering of his stars continues, this should be another fun game.