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Despite flashes of brilliance, James Harden still a work in progress for Sixers

Sixers James Harden has looked like vintage James Harden at times, but the former MVP is still adjusting to life with his new team.

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Performances like Thursday night’s are what the Sixers envisioned when they made a blockbuster deal for James Harden.

The Sixers came up short against the defending champs, but Harden was stellar with 32 points and nine assists on 71.8 percent true shooting. More important than the numbers, there were flashes of vintage James Harden — step-back threes, lulling defenders to sleep before quick bursts to the basket, drawing fouls, brilliant passes.

But for as great as the former MVP was, the game did reveal moments that show where Harden is still adapting to life with his new team.

“We had a good talk today, James and I,” Doc Rivers said postgame. “He’s trying to fit in and get guys going and I told him, ‘No thank you.’ I said, ‘You’ll get going and we’ll figure it out. We just need you to be you. Don’t worry about everyone else. As long as you and Joel are in the right spots, we’ll figure out everyone else. But we need you to think of yourself as a scorer, not the way you played in Brooklyn where you were a point guard trying to run the team.’ We want him to be the James (he’s been), and tonight he was. That was a big step for us. I think that was really good.”

The amped up scoring aggression was notable. The ball seemed to be sticking early in the game. It was Harden, with three lightning-quick drives and finishes early in the first quarter, that loosened things up a bit.

Milwaukee is a team that likes to pack the paint and would prefer you to take threes. They allow their opponents to shoot over 40 threes a game, easily the highest team mark in the NBA. It goes against conventional wisdom — at least by modern NBA standards — but has served the Bucks well during Mike Budenholzer’s tenure.

That strategy, along with having the sturdy Brook Lopez back in the lineup, draws a lot of attention to Joel Embiid. Embiid struggled early from the field with the constant double and triple teams, but did well finding his outlets and making plays for his teammates.

One of those teammates being Harden ... when he shot the ball.

While the score-first mentality was on full display, Harden still has a weird penchant for passing up wide-open catch-and-shoot threes.

“It’s funny, we showed him some film of the Phoenix game and I think the Lakers game,” Rivers said. “The ball swings; he’s never had that when he’s getting the ball swung to him — and he rarely shoots them. So we’re getting used to that. He spent a ton of time after (shootaround) today working on spot-up shots. And he was laughing. He said, ‘I haven’t had a spot-up swing in … ever.’ So now he’s getting them and that’s good, because he’s a great shooter. It’ll work out for him.”

It’s to such an extreme that there was a play Tuesday night where Harden had a wide-open three off the catch from the top of the key, but opted to take one dribble to his left before taking and making a triple.

Whatever works.

While Harden often looks to make the extra pass for an even better look on the swing — “good to great” if you will — he admits that he needs to take advantage of catch-and-shoot opportunities to open things up for Embiid.

“Yeah, that, and then the swing-swing is there,” Harden said. “I feel like they’re rotating to me, so the swing-swing is there. But that’s something I do have to get used to, being ball-dominant for so many years now. A guy like Jo gets double teamed in the post and the ball gets swung to me, sometimes I’ve got to shoot it. So I’ll watch film and try to get better as time goes on.”

The much more complicated area of improvement for Harden and the Sixers is their execution late in games. They were given masterclasses in their last two losses from the Suns and Bucks, two teams that were in the Finals less than a year ago. Both those teams basically have their closing groups from last season intact.

The Sixers essentially have two players from last season’s group in Embiid and Tobias Harris. Tyrese Maxey rarely ever saw the floor in those situations as a rookie. Harden is just 15 games into his Sixers tenure. And the last spot appears to be revolving between Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang and Danny Green, depending on the matchup.

While the Sixers did get a couple decent looks down the stretch, the offense did seem a bit cluttered. The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll is likely going to be a staple of the Sixers’ offense when the postseason arrives. It’s an action they’ll likely use a lot in crunch time.

For as great as the duo is — and as much success as they’ve already had — they’re both getting a feel for each other and for what opposing defenses are doing to them.

“Obviously he’s a good iso player, so we want to give him as much room as we can,” Embiid said. “And then I also have the mismatch. So that’s when it comes down to execution; we’ve got to know what we’re doing. And in some situations, the iso can be good. In others, the other matchup could be good. But really the whole night, especially for me, I just tried to make the right plays over and over. They just kept doubling me everywhere on the floor, really, and I just knew that was a game where I had to make plays for others.”

When star players get together there’s always concern about buy-in and each guy sacrificing for the other. That does not appear to be an issue for Harden and Embiid.

If anything, nights like Tuesday show that Harden just needs to be himself — while taking advantage of the easy looks Embiid creates for him.

“I’m trying to get it right,” Harden said of his meeting with Rivers. “I’m trying to be the best James Harden I can be, and I’m trying to make sure that I’m doing the things necessary to help my team win. So I had a talk with him. We talked for maybe a half hour about things and he was basically just telling me, to sum it all up, ‘Just go out there and be you.’ That was kind of my mindset today, so it felt good to have that confidence from Doc from here on out.”