The Philadelphia 76ers are expected to make quick work of the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs. The Sixers are undoubtedly the better team with Joel Embiid leading the way. This Nets team is not to be taken lightly but it shouldn’t hold Embiid and friends up for very long.
The argument for Embiid being the best player in the NBA right now is a very strong one. The likely MVP has been on a rampage to get the Sixers to the Finals and looks nearly invincible. Since no player truly can be, he’s going to need the help of his teammates. One, in particular, will be expected to produce at a high level throughout the postseason.
The X-factor of a playoff series is usually a role player. For the Sixers, it’s their second star. Tyrese Maxey having a great series would be super helpful and getting someone like Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker or De’Anthony Melton in a groove would be a wonderful development for Philly. But above all, whether or not Harden plays like a star will determine whether this series against the Nets is painless or painstaking.
Sixers’ X-factor vs. Nets: James Harden
Harden brings a ton of pressure with him heading into the playoffs. Years of disappointment nearly boiled over last season when he flopped against the Miami Heat in the second round. His hamstring injury and inexperience with a new Sixers team served as (somewhat legitimate) excuses for why Philly once again failed to reach the conference finals. There are no such issues now.
While Harden did end the regular season with concerns about an Achilles injury, he also put together a season that few expected him to. He was given a few extra days of rest to end a regular season that featured the second assist crown of his career and rejuvenated shooting splits despite his nagging issue. The Sixers should feel good about what he did but remain skeptical that it is fully indicative of what is to come in the postseason.
At numerous times throughout the season, Harden has looked incapable of beating his guy off the dribble. The quick burst he had in his prime is gone, as he now relies on a decently quick first step mixed with the power to muscle through the defense in the paint. His field-goal percentages on shots at the rim and short mid-range are well below average and it often leads him to post poor shooting nights when his jumper doesn’t save him. His defense remains questionable at best.
Brooklyn’s horde of staunch wing defenders and center Nic Claxton, one of the most switchable centers in the league, will challenge Harden each time down the court. There will be no easy passes to the paint and each of his jumpers off the bounce will be contested. A long, athletic team could give the older, less explosive Harden some trouble. Still, he has to overcome it for the Sixers to win without overwhelming Embiid.
Harden has to be more than just the guy who passes the ball to the big man. He has to command the eyes of the surrounding defenders by being a threat to get to the hoop. Capitalizing on his free throws and perimeter shots are a must. On defense, he has to stay engaged off the ball and keep his hands up to generate deflections. If things aren’t going his way, he can’t remove himself from plays like he has done in the past. Struggles are one thing but not working through them would be inexcusable.
More important than how Harden well plays with Embiid is how well he plays without him. Doc Rivers entrusts him to lead the bench lineups when Embiid is out. Although the playoffs will see fewer of those minutes, they remain vitally important. Whether he plays with a pick-and-roll threat in Paul Reed or a spaced-out lineup with P.J. Tucker at center, Harden has to step up when the superstar sits down.
Nets fans would love to see Harden stink it up after watching him demand a trade from the team — even though the events following the trade make his choice look justified. The Sixers’ star guard claims he is ready to move on after being a part of a failed big three. But should the Sixers’ first game in Brooklyn this season be any indication, the Barclays Center crowd will boo him consistently.
James Harden’s ultimate goal is to win a championship. He can help himself and the Sixers start the march toward the title on the right foot by taking care of business against his former team.
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