In the three games with James Harden in the fold, the Philadelphia 76ers have clearly leveled up from fringe contender only in the conversation due to possessing an MVP frontrunner, to a true contender powered by a pair of MVP-caliber stars and a worthy young apprentice. The offense is ripping through the opposition (admittedly just Minnesota and the Knicks twice thus far), scoring 133, 125, and 123 points. The bench unit that had often been an Achilles heel now has at least one star on the court at all times to keep things afloat (the backup center situation is still far from ideal). And when the new “Big 3” of Harden, Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey are all in the game, the Sixers have outscored the opposition by 61 points in 68 minutes.
After playing middling competition, even the biggest skeptics will be convinced if the Sixers continue to roll through this weekend. They have a tough back-to-back against Cleveland tonight at home and in Miami tomorrow night (although the good thing about having a game the night before the game in Miami is that the players won’t fall victim to the South Beach flu).
Tonight’s matchup isn’t quite as tough as it looks in the standings, where Cleveland sits at 36-26, 5th place in the Eastern Conference as of this writing. The Cavaliers have actually lost five of their last six games, most recently falling by 21 at home to Charlotte on Wednesday. The injury bug has hit Cleveland hard lately. All-Star point guard Darius Garland missed three games due to back soreness, although he did return Wednesday, scoring 33 points, so he should be out there tonight. Trade acquisition Caris LeVert is out with a foot injury, and backup point guard Rajon Rondo is doubtful with a toe injury.
On paper, with a frontcourt of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, the Cavaliers are one of the few teams with the size and defensive acumen to slow down Joel Embiid. But paper didn’t account for this:
EMBIID THROWS DOWN THE HAMMER ON JARRETT ALLEN pic.twitter.com/6idJiQvsUt— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 13, 2022
In the meeting between these two clubs a few weeks back, Embiid went off for a casual 40-point triple-double (40 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists). I’ll bet the Cavaliers have slightly more success against him tonight, more due to simple regression to the mean and the fact that Joel doesn’t need to do quite as much now with (Coach) James Harden in the mix. Watching Harden and Garland go shot for shot on the perimeter should be fun (Garland had 27 points in that last game against Philly).
The atmosphere for Harden’s home debut Wednesday night was absolutely electric. With the fans in attendance perhaps able to imbibe a bit more as they kick off the weekend festivities, the intensity might even be ticked up another watch tonight. The Philadelphia 76ers are must-see TV. What a world.