Sixers can’t bank on Houston’s version of James Harden to save them

The Cavalry could be arriving for the Philadelphia 76ers soon, just in time.

All-Star center Joel Embiid missed the first two games of the Sixers’ second-round playoff series against the Miami Heat as he continued to recover from the orbital fracture and concussion he suffered last Thursday in their final Game 6 win over the Toronto Raptors. . However, the Sixers upgraded him Friday afternoon to questionable after clearing concussion protocols, according to multiple reports.

Embiid is “doing everything he can to play” despite still struggling with his orbital fracture and a torn thumb ligament he suffered in Game 3 against the Raptors, according to Shams Charania of Athletics. Either way, the onus of creating offensive half-court will likely fall to James Harden.

How Harden balances his responsibilities as a playmaker and scorer will go a long way in deciding whether the Sixers can make it back to this series or fall into a virtually insurmountable 3-0 hole.

When the Sixers acquired Harden in a blockbuster trade deadline deal, it looked like they might have found the missing piece to their championship puzzle. He’s one of the best point guards in the league and he immediately started generating easier shot attempts for Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and the rest of the Sixers’ supporting players.

However, he is no longer the player who led the league in scoring for three consecutive years near the end of his tenure in Houston. Anyone who thought he would be that player again in Embiid’s absence had misplaced expectations.

Whether it’s the lingering effects of a hamstring injury he’s been nursing since last year or Father Time, Harden no longer has the consistent brilliance to blow through defenders and get to the basket. He flashes it sometimes, including with an explosive dunk at the start of Game 6 against Toronto, but he can’t rely on it as much as he did in his prime.

The biggest problem for Harden against Miami, however, was Embiid’s absence. Without the big guy on the floor, the Heat devote a lot more of their defensive attention to Harden.

In Game 1, 12 of Harden’s 13 shot attempts were contested, according to ESPN Stats & Information (via ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne). They also doubled it nine times.

“The closest average defender to Harden’s shot attempts was 3.7 feet, according to Second Spectrum,” Shelburne added. “It was the third-smallest separation in a game for Harden this season and the smallest in a playoff game for Harden in two years.”

The situation got even worse in Game 2 on Wednesday.

“The average distance between Harden and the closest Heat defenseman in Game 2 was 3.1 feet, per Second Spectrum, the closest in any game for Harden in the past three seasons,” according to Shelburne. “For comparison, when Embiid is on the court with him, that distance increases to 4.3 feet.”

With the Heat devoting so much defensive attention to him, Harden has gone more into play mode.

“They’re doing a good job of just getting two on the ball and trying to take the whole field away from me,” Harden told reporters after Game 2. “So it gave our guys more room to be aggressive if they were going to deny me wherever I was on the floor.

However, his teammates have yet to take advantage of those looks. After shooting an awful 6 of 34 from deep in Game 1, they weren’t much better in Game 2. They shot 8 of 30 from downtown, although they were 30 of 54 from two runs.

Despite those shooting issues, Harden racked up 14 assists in the first two games of the series. (No other Sixer has more than five.) However, NBA.com credits Harden with 27 potential assists, which means his teammates missed more than a dozen open shot attempts he created.

“When I’ve had opportunities to attack and be aggressive, and that ground has opened up a bit, then I can go there,” Harden added after Game 2. “Give them credit, but I feel like if we’ve done a little [more] blows, and I keep saying it, but that opens up the floor a little more. You have to respect our shooters, now our gaps are a bit more open.”

If the Sixers shooters can take a few more of those open looks, the Heat may have to rethink their defensive strategy against Harden. Embiid’s potential return could also alter the balance of the series.

It’s unrealistic to expect Embiid to be his MVP caliber right away. If he plays in Game 3 he will be wearing a mask – which bothered him when he suffered a similar injury in 2018 – and he will still have a torn thumb ligament that has hampered him throughout the game. Raptors series.

However, even a physically compromised Embiid will be more of an all-around weapon than DeAndre Jordan or Paul Reed, who have both gobbled up the lion’s share of minutes at center in his place.

Anytime Embiid is able to establish a deep post position, the Heat will have to outshine multiple defenders in their path. The Heat can’t afford to go 1-5 like they did against Jordan and Reed and let a smaller player guard Embiid, which could free up more space for Harden to operate.

Either way, Harden’s primary value to the Sixers is as a playmaker, not a scorer. Embiid, Maxey and Harris are all there to share some of the scoring load, but none of them can create shots for others like Harden.

It’s fair to wonder if this scaled-down version of Harden is worth a maximum five-year contract worth north of $270 million this offseason, but that’s a question to be answered after the playoffs. For now, the underdog Sixers can only hope that Embiid can return in Game 3 and can help restore balance to their attacking hierarchy.

Unless otherwise stated, all statistics via NBA.com, PBPStats, Clean the glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via spotrac.

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