The Sixers need James Harden to carry them, but can he?
12: 31 AM ET
Ramona ShelburneESPN Senior Writer
- Senior writer for ESPN.com
- Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News
There are few things in the NBA more precious than time and space. Four years ago, it seemed like the Philadelphia 76ers had endless amounts of both as they faced off with the Miami Heat in a first-round playoff series with an eerily similar setup to Monday night’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals: Superstar center Joel Embiid was out with a broken orbital bone and hoping his teammates could prolong the series long enough for him to return to action with a custom-made face mask.
Ben Simmons was Embiid’s running mate in 2018, when it felt like the young duo had a decade in front of them to figure out how to pay off “The Process,” former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie’s then-radical vision of championship team construction.
The Heat were in the opposite predicament, short on both time and space, and trying to squeeze one last playoff run with an aging Dwyane Wade before ultimately rebuilding around a rookie on that team named Bam Adebayo. Four years later, much has changed.
Miami’s 106-92 win against Philadelphia on Monday at FTX Arena wasn’t just a manifestation of how far the top-seeded Heat have come in their reboot, it laid bare just how little time and space this group of Sixers has left to figure out how to become a championship contender.
Simmons is with the Brooklyn Nets now, still dealing with the aftereffects of his time under the heat lamp of expectations that came with being a face of the Process-era Sixers.
His replacement, 2018 MVP James Harden, was essentially suffocated by a lack of space Monday night while trying to pick up the slack for the injured Embiid while he and his teammates missed more than 82% of the 3-point shots (28 misses on 34 attempts) they took against the Heat. Much will be written about Harden’s ineffectiveness in Game 1. He finished with 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting, running his streak of being held under 25 points to 11 straight playoff games, his longest since he was coming off the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder to start his career.
Harden, 32, has noticeably had trouble getting past defenders during his time in Philadelphia, and it has prompted questions around the league: Has he lost a step? Is his injured hamstring still a problem for him? Can he get his burst back in time to justify a max contract extension worth $223 million this summer?
Once Embiid was lost indefinitely with a concussion and orbital fracture suffered in Game 6 of Philadelphia’s first-round series win over the Toronto Raptors, the time pressure on those questions swirling around Harden sped up. Monday night’s disappointing showing was a reflection on the dire state of the Sixers without Embiid. He literally had no room to operate.
According to ESPN Stats & Information data, 12 of Harden’s 13 field goal attempts were contested. He was also double-teamed nine times.
According to Second Spectrum, Harden was 3.7 feet from the nearest defender during his shot attempts. This was the third-smallest distance in a game this season for Harden and the second-smallest in a playoff match for Harden in the past two years.
If you have been following Harden’s career, you will know why this is a problem. He needs space to move around. Even though he can make some of it, even without the speed, he cannot do so when the defense doesn’t have any reason to respect his teammates shooting.
” Harden stated that he thinks he can be more aggressive. “They did a great job of showing their bodies and crowding out the ball when it came.
“But, I believe the shot-making is what opens the floor for our whole team. “
The fact-based way Harden gave that assessment was just as important as the order in, which clearly identified what went wrong for Philadelphia in Game 1.
He first took some of the blame. He then gave credit to the Heat’s defence. He then said the part that really matters without putting any of his teammates under the bus.
The Sixers’ bright side is that they will need Harden to be accountable and lead if they want to get back in the series.
” “It’s only one game, but things could turn fast,” Harden said. He was trying to be positive to the young locker room he had been forced into leading with Embiid.
James Harden drives toward the basket and tosses the ball up to DeAndre Jordan for a dunk.
And there is some optimism Embiid could return at some point in this series, but that’s mostly because he has been so determined to play through injuries and pain this season. Sources told ESPN that
Embiid was still suffering from concussion symptoms Monday at home in Philadelphia. To be able to play again, Embiid will need to go through the NBA’s concussion protocol and then get a report on a right orbital fracture at his appointment on Wednesday. Sources say that Embiid may be able to play in Game 3 or 4 in Philadelphia if everything goes well. That’s what happened in 2018, when Embiid returned in Game 3 of what turned out to be a five-game series win over the Heat and dubbed himself the Phantom of the Process. The circumstances are the same this year, but the feeling is quite different.
Everything seemed wide open in front of Philadelphia back then. Both of their superstars were young and growing up together.
There is a sense now of urgency that Embiid has reached his peak and Harden is trying his best to keep what little he has left. Because of all the events that have occurred along the way, there is a new weight.
There is still time to figure this out. There is still plenty of space for creation. However, there is less of it right now.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.