Joel Embiid says James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers need to be more aggressive, toughen up to break through
PHILADELPHIA — After acquiring James Harden at the trade deadline, the Philadelphia 76ers hoped this would finally be the year they broke through and made it to the Conference Finals — and beyond — in the NBA playoffs. .
Instead, for the fourth time in five years, Philadelphia saw its season end in the second round on Thursday night, losing 99-90 to the Miami Heat. Harden wasn’t a factor in the game, taking just nine shots – including two in the second half – and scoring 11 points.
This led Joel Embiid to say the 76ers didn’t get the version of Harden who won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, and finished in the top three by voting three more times, in the deal. , and that he — and the rest of the 76ers — weren’t aggressive enough throughout the series.
“Ever since we got him, everyone expected the Houston James Harden,” Embiid said. “But that’s not what he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, he could have been, like we all could have been, more aggressive. All of us, let it be Tyrese [Maxey] or Tobias [Harris] or guys coming off the bench.
“And I’m not just talking about offense. I’m talking about you know, as a whole offensively and defensively. I didn’t think we were good defensively as a team. They took advantage of a lot of things that we tried to do defensively. And then offensively, everybody’s really on the same page, obviously, probably only having what, three or four months to all work together and try to figure it out. Maybe it wasn’t a lot of time…I don’t think we played our best basketball.”
The 76ers certainly didn’t play their best basketball in Games 5 and 6 of this series, when the Heat successfully chased them off the field twice in a row to close things out after Philadelphia won Games 3 and 4 here at the Wells Fargo Center for even the series.
Throughout a wide-ranging interview, which served as both a post-game chat and an exit interview for the upcoming offseason, Embiid said the loss could not be attributed to any player. in particular and that it was a moment that compelled everyone on the roster to look in the mirror and find ways to improve.
“Everyone has to improve,” Embiid said. “It’s not just about me or [Harden]. From 1 to 15, there’s a reason we lost to Miami. It means we weren’t all good enough. So everyone just has to be better.”
And, when asked to dig deeper into what, exactly, the 76ers need to improve as a team, Embiid pointed to the team he just finished playing — the Heat — and said that the 76ers needed to get a lot tougher, specifically naming Heat forward PJ Tucker as the type of guy he never played with in his career.
“Of course,” Embiid said. “I mean, we’ve had a few tough guys since I’ve been here. I remember, whether it was Mike Scott, he didn’t play a lot of minutes, but when you’ve got the size and the toughness, it goes a long way.
“You look at someone like PJ Tucker, a great player, but it’s not about knocking down shots on him. It’s about what he does. Whether it’s defensively or bouncing the ball You look defensively, he plays with so much energy, believes you can get from point A to point B and he believes no one can beat him and he’s tough, like he’s just physical and he’s tough. And they got a couple of these guys, be it Bam [Adebayo] and all those guys.
“Since I’ve been here, I’d be lying if I said we’ve had, you know, those kind of guys. Nothing against what we have. It’s just the truth. We’ve never had PJ Tucker. is really what I’m trying to say. [increases], especially once you get to the playoffs or later rounds, you need it. You need those guys who are really tough.”
And, in addition to talking about Tucker, Embiid reaffirmed his affection for Heat star Jimmy Butler, his teammate for a few months here three years ago before joining Miami this offseason.
It was three years ago on Thursday, in fact, that Philadelphia’s season ended in Game 7 in Toronto on Kawhi Leonard’s perennial shot — the only time Embiid and Butler teamed up in the playoffs. Embiid admitted he wished he had more playoff opportunities with Butler.
“Obviously he’s my guy,” Embiid said. “He’s my brother. Oh man, it’s hard. But I’m so proud of him. He’s playing at an unreal level right now. He’s something else right now. I’m proud that he’s at that level and that he wears them and what he’s been able to do. They’ve had ups and downs all season. Missing guys, not healthy, and, they still found a way to be the number one team in the East and to be able to come in and do what “They did, they deserve a lot of credit. They have a great team, great guys overall. And obviously great training and a great attack on offense. So much credit to them.
“Like I said, I’m happy for him. I mean, I’m not going to sit here and say I didn’t want him to be my teammate. I still don’t know how we got him. let go. I wish I could still go into battle with him. But it is what it is. I just have to keep building and keep trying to achieve that goal.
While Embiid doesn’t play with Butler, he does play with Harden, who saw another disappointing postseason end with his disappearing act in Game 6. Harden took just two shots in the second half – the second arriving very late. in the fourth quarter, after the match was already decided.
When asked what made him disappear offensively, Harden replied: “‘We directed our attack. The ball just didn’t come back to me.”
But when it comes to his future in Philadelphia, Harden had a bit more to say. With a player option of $47 million this offseason, Harden has a choice to pick that up and lock that money in, pick it up and extend it with the 76ers or turn it down and sign somewhere else or sign a new contract. .
Whichever option he chooses, however, Harden said he would choose to play here.
“I’ll be there,” Harden said.
When asked if he would take less money, he added: “Anything that allows us to keep growing and improving and doing the things necessary to win and compete at a high level.”
What is clear is that the 76ers will need more than they have to compete at the level they hope. After the game, 76ers coach Doc Rivers repeatedly said that this team “wasn’t good enough” to beat the Heat and said the roster needed to improve.
And, in addition to Embiid’s comments that Philadelphia’s toughness needs to improve, Harris said the team’s mental toughness was an issue against Miami.
“It’s not easy to fix,” Harris said. “But I think that just comes with the intention. Every man for himself with the intention that you come into the game, with the energy that you come in with, I think that’s a huge part of that. is something that we’ve, I will say, throughout this year we’ve shown in many games how great we can be and we’ve shown when things are going well how strong we are mentally. think you know, on the other hand, we didn’t do a great job when things weren’t going our way.”
Now the 76ers will have a long offseason to think that is not going their way, and all the ramifications of that being the case.
Embiid, meanwhile, said he still expects to have surgery on the torn ligament in his right thumb, but doesn’t expect to need it for his facial fracture. And he admitted that after coming through the regular season healthy for the first time in his career, he was disappointed his season ended with multiple injuries preventing him from performing at his best.
“I don’t regret it because that’s life,” Embiid said. “It happens. It just has to be dealt with. It sucks. Not making excuses. But it’s just facts. It sucks. I don’t think anyone will believe I was 100%. So it fears going on stage and not being yourself, not being able to do what you want, and your body doesn’t allow you to just be yourself. So it sucks, but I don’t have any regret.”