The Sixers James Harden era is off to a brilliant start. Their new star has been in stellar form and building strong chemistry with Joel Embiid already, Tyrese Maxey is thriving playing off Harden and has racked up 49 total points over the last two games, and the team’s ball movement is popping with Harden’s elite playmaking at the helm. Put all that together, and the Sixers have two solid wins with Harden to show for it.
On Wednesday night, the Sixers will be looking to extend their current win streak to four in The Beard’s home debut in Philadelphia. They’re closing out their mini series against the Knicks after earning a 125-109 win on Sunday in New York.
Both teams will be in similar shape in the second outing. The Sixers’ main rotation is still in tact, with the only absences being Charles Bassey, Charlie Brown Jr., Myles Powell and Jaden Springer on assignment in the G League. The Knicks’ rotation will be missing Quentin Grimes (right patella subluxation) and Derrick Rose (right ankle surgery) who are both listed as out, while Kemba Walker has been shut down for the season.
There was a lot to like with the Sixers’ offense in Sunday’s game. Embiid led the way with 37 points and tallied career-highs in free throw attempts and makes as he went 23-of-27 from the line. Harden was excellent yet again, putting up 29 points on 8-of-14 shooting, 10 rebounds, 16 assists and five steals. Maxey had another effective night playing off the star duo, adding 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting as he attacked off the catch, broke out in transition, and hit three triples.
The connection of Harden and Embiid was the highlight, though. They continued to showcase impressive chemistry in pick-and-rolls, with Embiid using good pacing and angles on his cuts to the rim, and Harden making a timely array of passes to set up his new co-star.
Really nice pick-and-roll connection from James Harden and Joel Embiid here.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 27, 2022
Harden drives, pulls over Robinson, and waits until just the right moment to set up Embiid for the finish. pic.twitter.com/UdBoEa2dxs
(I wrote about their pick-and-roll play and the “Chicago” dribble hand-off action they’ve been using in more detail here, if you’re after more analysis on their early partnership.)
It’s going to be tough for teams to figure out ways to contain the two-man game of Harden and Embiid. Focus too much on Harden to take away his pull-up three or drives, and he can pick apart defenses as a passer to find Embiid rolling to the rim or on short rolls to face up. Send extra defenders at Embiid as he finds positioning inside, and Harden can hit shooters or cutters, or simply create scoring opportunities for himself either inside the arc or from deep.
If the first game of this mini series was any indication, the Knicks can’t contain the Sixers’ new attack. RJ Barrett and New York’s guards couldn’t keep up with Harden when screened in pick-and-rolls or hand-off actions, and Jericho Sims and Mitchell Robinson can’t contain Embiid’s strength or foul-drawing tricks inside.
While Embiid may not reach career-high free throw numbers again, the parade to the line could easily continue on Wednesday. The Knicks simply don’t have rim protectors who can handle Embiid and deter he and Harden without fouling (which will be the case for most around the league). The Sixers fouling out both Sims and Robinson on Sunday pretty much says it all. And the Knicks have no chance when they’re left with Randle at the 5 either.
The main improvement the Sixers could make for the second matchup of this Knicks series is sharpening up their defensive rebounding. This has been a weakness for Philly all season, shown by their ranking of 21st in defensive rebound percentage. They gave up 12 offensive rebounds on Sunday and allowed too many easy second chance opportunities. It helped keep the Knicks closer than they should’ve been when considering the rest of the Sixers’ performance, so any improvement could make a real difference.
Another thing to watch is whether there will be any change to the Sixers’ backup center rotation. 37-year-old Paul Millsap hasn’t been able to hold up so far. At this point of his career, he isn’t the answer. It’s now been reported that the Sixers will aggressively pursue DeAndre Jordan after he was waived by the Lakers (I won’t get into how much Jordan has declined and why giving young guys like Paul Reed and Bassey would be preferable right now, but it looks like this signing is a real possibility). Doc Rivers did say at Tuesday’s practice that he anticipates using Willie Cauley-Stein soon, so perhaps the Sixers’ newest addition will get an opportunity against New York.
The Knicks have now lost 15 of their last 18 games after another defeat on Sunday. With their struggles against Embiid and limited point-of-attack defense to slow down Harden and Maxey, the Sixers should have all the firepower they need to take control of this game.
And with the atmosphere of the Philly crowd getting to cheer for Harden for the first time, this should be another fun one.
When: 7:30 pm ET, Mar. 2, 2022
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia, ESPN
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic