The Philadelphia 76ers are sitting on a 1-0 series lead vs. a rangy and athletic Brooklyn Nets team. In the first game of the series Joel Embiid, James Harden and the Sixers overwhelmed Jacque vaughn’s squad by raining threes. They won 121-101.
The Nets did all they could to slow down Joel Embiid, sending doubles and traps every time the potential league MVP touched the ball. And the gamble meant that there would be open looks for basically everyone else.
The Sixers drained 21 triples in that contest, setting a new playoff franchise record. Even though the Nets shot a blistering hot 55.7 percent overall and 44.8 percent from distance, they couldn’t keep things close as the game wore on.
And Philadelphia even did something they are not known for doing all too often. They actually played some good ball when their MVP was out resting!
Paul Reed, Embiid’s primary backup these days, finished as a +5 in his 13 minutes, earning chants of “B-Ball Paul” when he went to the free throw line.
It feels like the birth of Playoff Paul, as the 23 year-old big tallied two steals, four boards, and went 5-of-6 from the floor, his athletic presence a breath of fresh air on the glass and in the passing lanes.
After the game, Harden, who drained a third of those 21 threes, to go with 13 dimes, talked about his growing confidence in the team’s current reserve rotation.
“Doc and myself are on the same page in the sense of, in that second unit, who’s out there, who’s going to be playing on the court and what we’re trying to accomplish,” the ten-time All-Star explained. “And I think that group with Melt, J-Mac, Georges and P-Reed, we get it. Obviously, everything isn’t going to be great, but defensively, we have to get stops. And then offensively, as much space as we can, and then I’ll do all the work and guys just be ready to shoot and make plays and finish.”
And based on those comments, Levick then asked head coach Doc Rivers for his perspective on how the team has arrived at their current bench squad. Does he have these ongoing dialogues with Harden, routinely?
Here was Doc’s reply, per Levick:
“Oh, a lot,” Rivers said. “When we go with the non-Joel group … and let’s be honest, guys, that hasn’t been a great group all year. And we’ve been switching guys. Early in the year, James [Harden] wanted no one else on the floor but (Montrezl Harrell), because he felt he was the better offensive player. We’ve tried to convince him that we need defense too with that group.
“I think Paul in particular has kind of grown in James’ confidence. That’s important for James, to be able to trust that he can pass it to him and he’ll finish — and that Paul will make the right play. And that’s what James had a major concern with.
“I think adding Jalen with James, we have a defensive group on the floor with James that’s still scoring now. Before, we had a bunch of offensive guys on the floor and if we didn’t score, we got mauled on the other end. So I think that group has been really good with James.”
Fans will no doubt find this tidbit interesting and worthy of some debate, I presume. That sentence that “we tried to convince him,” is clearly the most eye-brow raising.
After Game 1 vs. the Nets, James Harden noted he's "on the same page" with Doc Rivers about who plays next to him when Joel Embiid sits.— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) April 17, 2023
Asked Rivers today about that, and he had an interesting answer:https://t.co/GN3rRGOoWB
One common complaint fans have had of Rivers over the years has been his reliance (and over reliance) on certain big men who don’t fare as well in playoff basketball; namely bigs who cannot shoot, or switch very effectively vs. the pick-and-roll.
And the biggest knock on Harden over his career has been his own defense, so the insinuation they needed to coax James to prioritize that is intriguing.
Doc Rivers lost his job several years ago in Los Angeles at least in part, because he played Montrezl Harrell over Ivica Zubac too much, vs. Denver in the bubble. Zubac was the better matchup vs. Nikola Jokic, and Rivers’ failure to adjust helped the Nuggets comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
And weirdly, the issue of backup big has only seemed to continue to hover as Rivers transitioned to Philadelphia; even before Harden was here.
Playing Ben Simmons alongside Dwight Howard when Joel Embiid rested predictably did not go well in 2021. Then playing DeAndre Jordan or Paul Millsap over Paul Reed was an unpopular preference of Doc’s come 2022 as well, once James was on the team.
Rivers famously warned us not to start the Paul Reed victory tour roughly a year ago.
It felt like an issue that would never fully resolve when Rivers, we’d learn last offseason recruited, and eventually favored Harrell as Joel’s backup.
Fans voiced their displeasure in our comments section and on Twitter for months.
Still, Harrell didn’t keep the primary backup role much further than early-to-mid February.
Around that time the team began to ramp up “B-Ball” Paul Reed, who offers a bit more athleticism and energy defensively, as Rivers discusses above.
So the head coach’s comments might come as a surprise to some folks who assumed Doc didn’t want to play Reed.
But perhaps he was just catering to his star point guard’s preferences?
This time a year ago - as some fans have already pointed out on Twitter - Doc told reporters they were going to keep starting DeAndre Jordan (when Joel Embiid was out with a concussion and orbital fracture) whether we liked it or not, since the team’s vets preferred it that way.
“We just felt like … we talked to our guys. They wanted a big guy, a big roller…
“We like DJ. We’re going to keep starting him whether you like it or not. That’s what we’re going to do, because our guys believe in him. It’s funny, at halftime we asked our key guys, because we were thinking about it — because I thought Paul Millsap gave us some decent minutes. And to a man, that’s where they wanted to go.”
Now I posted this quote from Sunday below, and I can see that Doc is getting dragged a bit on Twitter in those mentions for “blaming his point guard” for one of his own less popular coaching moves.
“Early in the year, James (Harden) wanted no one else on the floor but (Montrezl Harrell), because he felt he was the better offensive player. We’ve tried to convince him that we need defense too with that group.”— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 17, 2023
-Doc Rivers https://t.co/ShVX9sRrAZ
And I can at least understand fan’s frustration.
For example, Harrell and Harden have only played 169 minutes in total since Dec. 5, (the date Harden returned from his 14 game absence due to foot strain).
But Harrell played 446.4 minutes in total since that same date, per NBA.com.
So Trez was all too often not even sharing the floor with James. Fans will no doubt remember the Harrell-Matisse Thybulle-Tyrese Maxey-Shake Milton-Georges Niang all-bench units that got memorably torched in some key losses before the team ultimately made the swap to Reed.
Was that unfortunate lineup somehow due to Harden’s own preferences? The 2023 assist king wasn’t even out there on the floor to help. So the idea that Rivers was acquiescing and allowing Harden to play with his guy doesn’t really explain that stuff at least.
Is there a world where Doc wanted to celebrate on the Paul Victory tour as much as the rest of us but felt it was best to simply listen to his star or veteran players, even if he felt they were wrong? Or did they convince him they were right, until he changed his own mind?
The most important thing is this: whatever the Sixers are doing right now is working.
I like their rotation. I think it was not ideal they used Trez so much this season, and I think it was even worse they used him without Harden for so much of the year. Those Trez anchored all-bench lineups that helped blow 20 point leads to Orlando and New York still keep me up at night.
But I guess if they’ve got it sorted now, that’s what counts.