The Philadelphia 76ers broke their three game skid back in the friendly confines of South Philly. It felt like forever since we last heard that “Here They Come” song.
They beat Kyrie Irving, Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks 116-108 on Wednesday night. Doc Rivers’ gang is now 50-26. It’s the fourth time they’ve notched the 50 win mark over the last six seasons, and we won’t hold the two pandemic shortened campaigns against them. They were a one seed in 2021, winning an Eastern Conference best 49 games.
They’ve been consistently atop the standings in the Joel Embiid era thanks to the Cameroonian sensation’s sheer dominance. One challenge for the franchise has been putting the right talent around him. One such talent, James Harden, has been stellar this season. Despite not making the All-Star team, the 14 year vet has been atop the KIA NBA MVP ladder for much of the year, ranking 9th overall in the Mar. 24 edition. Embiid tops the list at no. 1.
Harden missed the team’s last four games. In that span, they went just 1-3, and it was evident they missed their high basketball IQ, 33 year-old point guard.
Harden recently popped up on the injury report with Achilles soreness following the double overtime game vs. the Chicago Bulls back on Mar. 20. He would log a whopping 47 minutes that game. And clearly the issue cost him the team’s next four ballgames.
In his return, the 2018 NBA MVP didn’t look great physically. That probably shouldn’t have been a shock. He shot just 4-of-14 from the floor, but still finished with am impressive 15 points and 12 assists. The Sixers are now two games behind the second placed Boston Celtics with six games to go.
Following the win over his former teammate Kyrie, Harden opened up about the nagging Achilles issue.
“I felt OK,” the three-time scoring champion said. “Towards the end I felt a little sore, but I expected that. So just try to do the proper things to continue to maintain it and finish these last six games off and then be ready to take that week of preparation [before the playoffs begin]. So I mean, I don’t think it’s just gonna completely go away, but you know, I’m out there.”
Harden missed 14 games with a right foot strain back in November. Since he returned from that issue the Sixers enjoyed the best record in the entire league for a very long stretch. They have the best record in the game since Dec. 9th, going 38-14.
But during that span, he would pop up on the injury report with left foot, heel or injury maintenance designations from time to time beginning in mid January. He’d miss the second night of a back-to-back set here and there too.
We didn’t have confirmation that this Achilles was the same heel or foot issue from January (it is the same body part). But we did suspect as much.
Harden officially connected the dots for us on Wednesday when asked what he’s been doing to get right.
“Just doing whatever it takes to strengthen my Achilles,” The Beard told reporters postgame. “Literally, I don’t know where it came from. But it’s been bothering me for some months, I would say. I just wanted to continue to play on it. There was one point to where, the last game I played, [vs. Chicago] it was just really unbearable, so I couldn’t even go out there - so six games left to finish this season off, finish off strong and then we got another week to prepare. I felt like tonight [vs. Dallas] was the game to come back.”
But Harden was out there. In fact, as noted, he would finish that double-overtime game, clearly in real discomfort, totaling almost 50 minutes, at times visibly wincing. We still don’t know why he was permitted to play that whole game on an issue the team knew was bugging him for months. It doesn’t require the power of hindsight to label that a clear miscalculation. You knew he’s nursed this for months, and you saw him wincing. He wasn’t running the offense. Don’t let him log another 25-30 minutes on it.
Now that he’s back in the rotation, what does maintaining this issue look like for him?
“After the game, I went into the weight room and did some kind of tendon loading and things like that for the Achilles, for my lower body, my calves, things like that,” the Arizona product explained. “So it’s just constant. Tomorrow I’ll do something, after the game Friday I’ll do something, so it’s just constant like making sure I’m on it, which I’ve been doing, but it’s - just back playing again it’s even more.”
After a decent sized absence, how did he feel he was rhythm wise, and in terms of his passing?
“OK, it was alright,” Harden said, always the perfectionist. “It’s difficult when you’re not playing five-on-five, you know what I mean, we really don’t practice so just one-on-ones and working out individually by yourself, it’s not the same as playing against pick-and-rolls or guys who run fast and switching and drop coverage and things like that.”
The NBA playoffs begin on Apr. 15. The Play-In runs from Apr. 11-14. The team’s last remaining game is on Apr. 9th.
Harden emphasizes how his rhythm takes a hit when he’s not out there night in, night out. But if you watched him on Wednesday, it was also clear he didn’t look quite right. At this point, securing the third seed would appear to be the team’s priority, if not their destiny.
Basketball-reference.com gives them an 86.5 percent chance of doing just that.
A potential path to the NBA Finals is shaping up where they’d host the (currently sixth seeded) Brooklyn Nets. Mikal Bridges and co. have lost six of their last 8 games. If they handled business there, then the Sixers would be shipping up to Boston, before potentially moving on to Milwaukee.
But there’s also a world where the 48-29 Cleveland Cavaliers catch the Sixers for the fourth seed, and foist on them a potential path where Philadelphia hosts the New York Knicks in round one, then ships up to Milwaukee for the semi’s, with a pending matchup in Boston to follow.
Without analyzing it all too hard, having processed what Harden said, and watched how he looked on Wednesday, I’d absolutely, positively err on the side of caution here and make sure he gets a few more rest games before the playoffs begin.
I know he’s a warrior. I know that never-take-a-game-off spirit is what got him to this point in his career, one of the game’s all time talents. But this team ain’t going nowhere if he’s nursing an aching Achilles to the extent he has in the last two ballgames he’s played in. They’re just not. He pushed through the hamstring at this time last season, logging big minutes, at times wincing deep into March. You saw how that turned out.
And you don’t want this thing to be one hard fall away from another flare up.
My vote would be for some rest. I’m not sure that he should have even been out there tonight.
Maybe someone on the med or coaching staff or even front office can have a sit down with James and let him know how vital it is he’s as healthy as possible for the stretch run, and how much less important it is that he’s out there for each and every one of the final six. I might even mention how much more money he might make in July with an outstanding playoff performance.
Chances are, with a 2.5 game lead over the Cavs, the team can secure that three seed even if The Beard only plays in a couple of the remaining games. But if they can’t, and sliding down to the four means he gets extra rest, even if it does cost him some precious rhythm, I’d opt for that conservative rout. Dude is that good. And when he and Joel Embiid are right, this team is pretty much unstoppable. I think they could really win it all. But if he’s not right? Then heck, even the 36-40 Bulls can beat ‘em.