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Time for the Sixers to get weird with The Beard

With Joel Embiid missing Games 1 and 2, the offense will be tailored around James Harden as the Sixers try to steal a game in Miami.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Joel Embiid has been the focal point of the Sixers’ offense since basically his first NBA game, despite post play diminishing greatly in this era. It’s proven to be an excellent strategy, especially as Embiid has realized his MVP potential.

James Harden wasn’t the focal point of his team’s offense when his career started, but became one of the greatest offensive players in NBA history with an unorthodox style that changed the game in several ways.

During his time in Brooklyn and even more so when he arrived in Philadelphia, Harden has taken on a more deferential role. Give credit to the 10-time All-Star and three-time scoring champ — he chose to come to Philadelphia knowing this was Embiid’s team.

But with the All-Star center set to miss Games 1 and 2 in Miami, everything on offense will run through Harden, a role with which he’s familiar.

If you’re missing an MVP finalist, there are worse replacements than a former MVP and one of the 75 greatest players of all time.

“We’re going to play more of a James-oriented offense than we have, because we have to,” Doc Rivers said after practice Saturday. “We’re going to space the floor more. We’re going to play in space more. We play minutes without Joel, and it’s harder in the games he plays in because everything has been sort of tailored to his style. But now that he’s not in, we have to do something else.”

As Rivers mentioned, that “something else” will be the type of offense Harden blossomed and flourished in with the Rockets — surrounded by shooters with space to create for himself and others.

It’s no secret that Harden has been inconsistent when it comes to scoring the basketball efficiently with the Sixers. Harden’s top nine scoring performances this season all came as a Net. Of course the prolonged absences of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant forced Harden to look to score more. And Harden’s hamstring issue seemed to peak right around the time he was traded.

There have been performances with the Sixers — outings against the Bucks and Clippers in late March come to mind — where Harden showed his scoring chops are still very much there, if maybe only in spurts.

To hear Harden tell it, he believes he has plenty of opportunities to score. He’s felt like the best path to team success is to get others involved, but knows that won’t necessarily be the case with Embiid sidelined.

“Just be more aggressive,” Harden said Sunday when asked how his role changes with Embiid out. “I’ve been comfortable in that role for a long time, so just taking what the defense gives me, being aggressive and making the right decision once I get to that point. More floor spacing, more attacks to the basket. We’ve just got to play free and with the ultimate confidence as a group.”

Is it difficult to fluctuate between facilitator and scorer?

“Nah, I’ve still had opportunities to score,” Harden said. “At this point, man, it’s about sacrifice. I could score 30-something and we lose, and somebody would say something. I could score 19 and we win, and somebody would say something. At this point, I just do whatever it takes to win the game — sacrifice.

“And I’m the ultimate team player. It’s the reality; Jo is out and I’ve got to be more aggressive, score the basketball, get to the basket and make the right decision. It’s no different than what I’m used to.”

Since being traded to Houston, Harden has averaged 28.6 points per game over the last decade. He’s scored over 20,000 points in that span, by far the more than any other player.

But as a Sixer, Harden averaged 21 points in 21 games, though his true shooting percentage was over 60. A brilliant Game 6 raised his numbers a bit — and frankly the point guard role suited the team just fine when they rolled in Games 1 and 2 — but Harden averaged just 19 points in the series against Toronto.

Overall, Harden was mostly very good in that series outside of Games 4 and 5, but he clearly was trying to get Embiid and Tyrese Maxey going — which, again, he was very successful at for most of the series.

He’ll face another team in the Heat that is physical, likes to switch everything and isn’t afraid to throw funky defensive schemes at their opponent. Miami was able to stifle the ball-dominant Trae Young in the first round to the tune of 15.4 points a game and 46.1 true shooting. The guess is Harden will receive similar treatment.

However, Harden and Young are different in many ways.

“They can do whatever they want. We’ll be ready,” Rivers said Sunday. “Of course they know there’s no Joel. They’re going to trap James, they’re going to trap Tyrese. They’re going to try to bump him — all the fake tough stuff. I always laugh at that, all the toughness stuff. You’re on a basketball court, I don’t know about that toughness, if you know what I mean. (Laughs) But we’ll be ready for it.”

If there’s any doubt that Harden can be the Sixers’ main scoring option against the top seed in the East, it’s clearly coming from the outside.

“James is an unbelievable scorer, an unbelievable passer,” Georges Niang said Sunday, “so the offense being tailored around him — obviously, like I said, missing Jo is a huge piece, don’t get me wrong — but having the offense tailored around James is … I don’t want to say just as good, but it’s still great for us. We still have a guy that can control the game, that can score at an elite level ...

“... I feel more than comfortable having the ball in James’ hands and the offense tailored to him. He’s a top 75 player, right? So who wouldn’t want to have an offense tailored around him?”

Niang went on to call Harden a “basketball nerd” and “basketball savant,” fair praise for a guy with a resume like the seven-time All-NBA pick.

Harden has done a little bit of everything. He was the sixth man while playing with two future Hall of Famers in Oklahoma City. He was the alpha in Houston, scoring prolifically while surrounded by shooters. He’s played with rim-running bigs and played in lineups with Robert Covington as his starting center. More recently he’s played with two players that you could make a solid best-player-on-the-planet argument for in Embiid and Kevin Durant.

The point being, Harden is much more adaptable than he gets credit for.

“For me, it’s not just about scoring,” Harden said. “‘If James Harden isn’t scoring 30, then James Harden isn’t the same James Harden’ — that’s not necessarily true. You’ve got a guy that’s averaging 30 that’s the MVP of this league. You’ve got really good guys like Tyrese and Tobias [Harris], and our entire group. I think everybody’s counting us out, is doubting us because Jo’s out, or whatever the case may be. We’re focused on what’s in house, how we can get better, and attacking Game 1.”

Harden’s style and journey are unique, but it’s led him to this point.

If the Sixers hope to pull off a Game 1 heist, it’s time for them to get weird with The Beard.