With a top two seed in the balance, with a Joel Embiid MVP trophy on the line, with the playoffs around the corner, the very last thing Sixers fans want to see is one of their stars get banged up.
So naturally, it appears that’s what has happened to James Harden. The Beard was absolutely cooking vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers last week. He dropped 28 points, and 12 assists, to go with three steals in 40 minutes, securing a massive win. In the next contest, he shot poorly, going just 4 of 16 vs. the Charlotte Hornets. We’ve grown accustomed to Harden playing better when fresh, and playing, well... not as well when not fresh.
Still, he had a triple double in his sleep vs. the Hornets and the vibes were nothing but great for that one. Heck, you remember:
Embiid had surged ahead of Nikola Jokic and Giannis for MVP favorite, and the Sixers were very much alive for a top two seed in the East. Red, white, and blue Kool-Aid for everyone.
It was just starting to feel like there was something really special about this team. And maybe there still is. But....
So first, James would be ruled out vs. the Indiana Pacers due to “injury recovery.” We didn’t think there was any recent injury. It simply felt like just the ideal time to buy a 33 year-old some rest, and it worked, as Philadelphia would coast to victory without The Beard, 141-121 over Indiana last weekend. P.J. Tucker missed that one also with a sore ankle. Nobody thought the duo wouldn’t have played if it was an opponent a bit tougher than the Tyrese Haliburton-less Pacers.
Of course, it’s not impossible that strained foot Harden missed 14 games with back in November still acts up on him from time to time, right? But that was the right foot.
Now it’s apparently the left Achilles that’s troubling him.
James Harden (left Achilles soreness) and PJ Tucker (left ankle soreness) are questionable for tomorrow’s game.— Harrison Grimm (@Harrison_Grimm) March 21, 2023
Per LB’s own Paul Hudrick, we first learned from head coach Doc Rivers post game that Harden’s “foot” was hurting:
“Even Doc Rivers admitted postgame it wasn’t anything the Bulls did schematically to stop Harden. He just had a rough night.
“No, he just didn’t play well,” Rivers said postgame. “I don’t think it’s them — at least not tonight. I thought he was hurting a little bit. I thought our pace was so slow — a lot of late-clock possessions. When we’ve done that this year, typically we have not won the game. Or if we’ve won the game, it’s been like tonight.”
“In Philadelphia’s locker room after the game, Harden moved a bit slower than usual, eventually summoning head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson to his locker to give him a postgame inspection and treatment.”
When asked for clarification on what was bothering Harden, Rivers said simply “his foot.”
So we held our breath most of today until injury reports came out. The playoffs are not far off. Was it a flare up of the thing he did in November? Something new?
Ahead of a huge rematch vs. Chicago, one of the last remaining “easier” games on the schedule, Harden is listed a “Questionable” with “left Achilles soreness,” per the Sixers. Tucker is also questionable with the same sore ankle.
And it’s just a little bit maddening to remember Harden logged 47 minutes in a double-overtime loss on Monday. He was visibly grimacing beginning before halftime during that contest. The wincing continued well into the second half.
You can watch one play here where he was particularly slow to get up.
If we do wind up hearing James Harden is dealing with a foot or something, here’s another look at that play where he appeared shaken up. pic.twitter.com/LAz98Mket9— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) March 21, 2023
After intermission, Harden really wasn’t helping the team on either end of the floor, appearing to surprise his teammates by deferring point guard duties to the likes of Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and occasionally even De’Anthony Melton.
The team’s shot quality really suffered. Without Harden (leading the NBA in assists per game) playing floor-general this team can really stagnate offensively. With respect to the Bulls stalwart defense, the 76ers should have (would have) won this game if Harden, who’d finish 2-of-14 with 5 points, was more himself.
Even if the medical staff had cleared James to continue, even if Harden insisted he was fine, the Sixers’ coaching staff had all of the information they needed to keep their star safe and pull him from that one.
Heck, plenty of fans on twitter could see him wincing and suggested they pull him from the lineup, myself included:
If they had, it seems very plausible they could have won the game and crucially, saved him up to 30+ minutes, playing on a sore Achilles.
And as we all know, you do not, under any circumstances, mess with an Achilles. Harden’s former superstar teammate can attest to this.
If Harden isn’t right, or has to miss time, this won’t be the first time the Sixers have mismanaged his workload. He began this season leading the NBA in minutes played, and was permitted to finish a game (logging around 30 minutes) after he sprained that right foot (in the first quarter of a game vs. Washington). After that game he’d receive an MRI, and miss more than a month. There was no reason to allow him to play hurt so early in the season.
Some of us didn’t understand it at the time:
Sixers knew Harden was coming back from a 2 season soft tissue issue, knew Embiid was in and out of the lineup. And still dialed up James Harden’s minutes full throttle like he was 25. It’s not hindsight or results bias. It’s basic Load management they needed. https://t.co/79dwX8JObS— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) November 3, 2022
How many less games might he have missed if he’d simply been pulled from the lineup of a game in November, after receiving some treatment in the locker room?
It’s a situation to monitor, Harden’s sore Achilles officially becomes the biggest storyline in Sixersville right now, by far. Occasionally, the Sixers could use a Czar of Common Sense in the worst way.