It was a year ago to the day that James Harden made his Sixers debut.
And what a debut it was.
Harden was electric in scoring 27 points and dishing out 12 assists in a blowout of the Timberwolves. He just met Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, and yet it looked they’d played together for a decade. Suddenly, the Sixers’ had a half-court offense after being devoid of one for most of the Ben Simmons era.
The impact was reminiscent of another guard that spent over a decade in the red, white and blue: Allen Iverson. So, it seemed only fitting that The Beard would pass The Answer on the All-Time scoring list while wearing a Sixers uniform Thursday night.
“The Answer. I don’t know, man,” Harden said when asked about passing Iverson. “Being in the NBA was a far-fetched dream. And now, telling me things like that, it’s just like, I don’t know what to say. Obviously, we know how important AI was to this league and to the city of Philly, but (also) the culture, the game of basketball itself. I’m just happy to be in the same conversation as him, and I’ve got a long way to go.”
While maybe the performance was trumped slightly by the wildness of the Sixers’ 115-110 comeback win over the Grizzlies, Harden dropped 31 points while dishing out seven assists (a number that could’ve been much higher if the players not named Harden shot better than 35.2 percent). He also moved into 14th on the all-time scoring list.
A night like Thursday is a reminder that Harden has already had a storied career, but is still writing his chapter with the Sixers.
It’s quite simple, really: when James Harden is on the floor, the Sixers’ offense hums. The team posts a 119.9 offensive rating with Harden on the floor, per PBP Stats. That falls to 113.8 when he’s on the bench. Overall, the Sixers’ net rating is 6.6 when Harden is running the show.
Before Harden returned from a 14-game absence on Dec. 5, the Sixers were sitting at 17th in the NBA in offensive rating. They’ve jumped all the way up eighth, posting the fifth-best rating since Harden came back.
The drop isn’t as precipitous as when Embiid takes a breather or misses time, but still dramatic. Think about how great that duo has been this year. They have a net rating of 9.0 when playing together, which drops to -5.21 when both players are sitting (which, let’s be honest, should never happen).
Harden is leading the league in assists per game (10.7) while Joel Embiid (33.0) narrowly trails Luka Doncic for the league scoring crown. The last time teammates won the scoring and assist title in the same season was 1981-82, when the Spurs’ George Gervin led the league in scoring and Johnny Moore led in assists. (We won’t mention how that season ended for San Antonio.)
There’s something special happening with these two players.
It’s the regular season.
The Grizzlies were banged up.
The Sixers shouldn’t have found themselves down 17 in the first place.
It’s hard to buy in when this team continues to lose in the second round.
There’s no disputing any of that. It’s all fair. But consider that these are the game the Sixers have seemingly always lost in years past. Their late-game execution — especially their half-court offense — left a lot to be desired over the years.
This play was highlighted by Rich Hofmann of The Athletic, which was a huge possession:
Memphis has an elite defense and they stifled the Sixers in the first half.— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) February 24, 2023
The Sixers found success with a set called "V-Out." It worked. Dillon Brooks did not want to switch off James Harden, who back screens for Tyrese Maxey on this play.
More here: https://t.co/iFVdv9dlZE pic.twitter.com/RiGOWIoznd
First, give Doc Rivers(!) credit: this was a really good set and good adjustment off the Grizzlies’ defense. Second, the execution was super crisp: great back screen by Harden, accurate bounce pass from Embiid, beautiful touch pass by Maxey, and Tobias Harris(!) making a huge shot.
What makes this play possible is the return of Harden’s burst. Memphis is a team chock full of long athletes. With Steven Adams out of the lineup, the Grizzlies’ gameplan was to switch on every Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll. It’s been the strategy against Harden for quite some time here.
The issue for opponents is that Harden has been able to get by bigs recently. When Harden is consistently able to get to the rim, it not only stretches defenses but makes them rethink switching. As Rich points out, Dillon Brooks didn’t want to switch off Harden which opened the entire play.
And let’s not forget that when Harden is going, that step-back is as lethal as ever.
Woke up & still can’t stop thinking about this absolutely insane James Harden step back corner 3… Dude somehow created enough space to get this shot off when there wasn’t actually any space available…— Josh Reynolds (@JoshReynolds24) February 24, 2023
Unbelievable stuff last night from @JHarden13 pic.twitter.com/Hmwsd2FdBP
A healthy Harden playing at this level makes the Sixers pretty damn scary.
But unlike Iverson once upon a time — or even like he did at times in Houston — Harden doesn’t have to carry the entire team on his back.
“That’s what it’s going to take — five guys on the same page with that type of effort,” Harden said of the comeback over the Grizzlies. “It was great for us. Like I said, we don’t want to put ourselves in that situation where we’re down double-digit points for basically the entire game. But we found something today: That we’ve got a really good team that won’t quit. That’s always a good sign.”
If Harden is able to carry the offense for stretches like he did Thursday, that’s a great sign for the Sixers.