Three games into the James Harden experience, and it’s been a love fest.
The Philadelphia 76ers are now two games out of first place in a suddenly ferocious Eastern Conference. At 38-23, they trail only the second-place Chicago Bulls and first-place Miami Heat in the standings.
As of today 538 predicts Philly will finish with the second seed in the East and host the winner of a Cavs-Nets Play-In showdown for round one. Imagine that? Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Ben Simmons visiting for the playoffs? I guess I’d tune in if I wasn’t too busy. This isn’t your granddaddy’s East.
The Sixers had little trouble polishing off the Minnesota Timberwolves in Harden’s Sixers debut. Then in the back half of a home-and-home vs. RJ Barrett’s Knicks (get used to that phrase), Joel Embiid and co. notched their third win in a row. Life’s good on South Beard St.
84% of Philadelphia men have beards, but I bet t-shirts fly— Jimmy Harden (@_JimmyMcCormick) March 2, 2022
Harden, Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey have all been simply awesome in three games together.
The league’s frontrunner for MVP did some reflecting after what was an emotional home debut for his new teammate. Embiid treated us with some fun quotes about his new electric backcourt tandem, Sixers’ culture, he took a swipe at the Colangelos, turned down a Kobe-and-Shaq comp, and more.
On the atmosphere at the arena
There was definitely some first half jitters on Wednesday night. Harden talked about feeling some butterflies himself, because of all the love he received from fans.
And at least on my television broadcast, the stadium sounded like a library at times in that first half when the Knicks had a double-digit lead. But maybe Doc Rivers broke the tension at halftime. The Sixers made a ridiculous 38-19 third quarter rally and the jungle was soon rocking, as Kevin Garnett might say.
“It was great. Felt like a playoff atmosphere,” Embiid told reporters after the 123-108 win. “I’ve given a lot of credit to Philly fans over the years and they always come through. Win or lose, they show a lot of support, whether it’s cheering for us or booing us. That’s what you want. You want fans to be involved, you want fans to know everything about their basketball team, and that’s what we have in Philly.”
Joel’s not kidding here. Sixers fans are highly engaged. When Furkan Korkmaz, who has struggled mightily, missed a triple then turned it over, he heard it from fans. When Tobias Harris didn’t take a wide-open catch-and-shoot triple, the stadium groaned and you can see Embiid show some disappointment on the clip below. That collective groan screams ‘Tobi we don’t mind if you miss, just shoot that’ and that reflects the BBALL IQ of this fanbase:
The Philly fans know all of the storylines, among the stars and role players, and they let you know as soon as those storylines come to life on the hardwood.
Is Maxey’s ascendance a surprise?
“No. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around,” Embiid said. “He shows up — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a back-to-back or not — he’s going to show up the next day at 8 in the morning. He’s going to come in at night and get some work in. So I’m not surprised. I’ve always known that it was going to happen and I’m just happy to see him playing the way he is right now. But he has a long way to go.”
Jimmy Butler is famous for showing up to a practice facility and like 3 a.m. then telling us about it. And it became a troll-worthy gag when JB left. That stuff that can be annoying when the dude is no longer on your squad, but it’s also kind of part of what makes a winning culture.
Butler was an instant favorite at Wells Fargo, and Maxey has absorbed much of that energy in his brief stint.
Maxey has hints of Jimmy Butler energy at Wells— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) June 2, 2021
And whatever the fans are picking up on, seems to be helping shape the current Sixers’ culture. Embiid is clearly impressed with the 21 year-old’s worth ethic and that’s huge.
On that Sixers’ Culture
“We’ve built the culture over the years,” Embiid said. “I’ve been here for a long time and obviously it’s changed over the years because we’ve had so many people come in and out, whether it’s front office or players or coaches. But we’ve been able to kind of keep it. It’s been an easy transition to come in here, knowing that they’re coming in and they see what we’ve built in the past, how close we are together. We do a lot of stuff together; we’re so close. We’re always hanging out, we’re always having fun. So I think it made easy.”
Embiid is talking about the full scope of his career here. Amazingly, he’s been a Sixer for nearly eight years now. And sure, he means the Process, the losing, the roster churn, the Colangelo and Collaborative messes that squandered so much of the assets once diligently hoarded, blah, blah....
But you can also hear what he’s saying through the lens of the last six months, specifically.
The non-Ben Simmons Sixers clearly bonded off the court because of that saga, a star player who didn’t want to play, forcing everyone else to mask the missing elements, while fielding questions about it all season long... and (extreme Marc Zumoff voice) oh by the way, most of you had to live with wondering if you’d also be traded and have to move because this guy didn’t want to play here.
So the Sixers came together off the court. That cohesion is with them today. And even more importantly, the skills they developed (Embiid as a passer, Maxey as a on-ball weapon) have vaulted them to heights many did not imagine. Harden being here clearly adds to that joy.
Joel mostly rejects a Kobe-Shaq comp
Embiid was asked if Harden and he are like the new Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
“We’ve got to win. I’m Joel Embiid. I don’t play the way Shaq did. I’m dominant in other ways. I’m not physically dominant like he was. He was a freaking monster when he played; obviously a Hall of Famer, one of the best ever. But I’m Joel Embiid. I dominate in other ways on the basketball floor as far as doing everything. James does the same thing as far as being a scorer and a playmaker.”
Joel goes on to say it’s not about himself or Harden, exclusively. It’s about all of them. And they have to pick each other up.
I’m a little curious if Embiid would have went for it if the reporter offered Michael and Scottie. Or OKC Harden and Durant. Maybe he just doesn’t love the idea of being the big since he has so many skills. Next time....
A tad more on Sixers culture and his new backcourt
“I think it all goes back to the culture that we’ve built, the system that we have in place. (Tyrese) came in here from the time that we told him how to play and how it was going to go; he just adapted. James is the same way. He’s come in, he’s added whatever he’s great at, and we’ve taken advantage of that. But like I always say, I go back to the culture. We have a great coaching staff and I have a bunch of great teammates.”
It’s probably the cynic in me speaking but I think you have to win a championship before the national media will run with any narrative that there’s something special about your team’s culture. We hear about Heat Culture, and Spurs culture.
The phrase “Jazz culture” sounds more like a nod to the Roaring ‘20’s than anything relating to Rudy Gobert.
But I’m also reluctant to dismiss what Joel is saying here. It does feel like there’s a certain joy this team is feeling. That collective sigh of relief. This core mostly wants to be here and they have a chance to win it all. It’s hard to quantify that stuff.
Oh the good ole Burnergate days
Here was a fun back and forth that came up between Embiid and Maxey on the podium together.
“I’ve been through a lot,” Embiid said.
Maxey quipped, drawing some laughs, “He’s the culture.”
“I’ve been through a lot,” Embiid continued, “whether you talk about freaking GMs using burner accounts, talking trash on their players. I’ve always thought that I’d always have one coach for the rest of my career in Coach Brown, and obviously you change, and I’ve seen so many players. I remember my first two or three years, we had probably over 80 players in one year — just guys coming in, guys getting cut. It’s hard. It’s hard to keep that culture. So I wouldn’t say it’s all about me. Obviously I’ve been here the longest and I’ve been lucky enough to keep going through trade deadlines and not getting traded and all that stuff.”
“You know what? That’s enough,” Maxey cut him off. Maxey literally just started laughing at the idea Embiid has any clue what it’s like to be on a trade block.
At the risk of sounding extraordinarily corny, the jokes Maxey has for Joel, is very much a part of why there seems to be a winning culture here now. Harden is here, he appears to be healthy, in shape, and locked in. He’s been a seamless fit. Maxey works as hard as Jimmy Butler once did. That affords him the chance to playfully mess with his center at times. This whole team won’t stay together forever. But they have a chance to do something special now. If they do, it won’t just be Joel Embiid praising Sixers’ culture.