To close out the second quarter, James Harden drilled a stepback 3-pointer, took three steps down the court and returned to the locker room.
Harden’s workmanlike buzzer-beater summed up the Philadelphia 76ers’ night. And for the first time all season, they looked like a team that expected to beat the opposition on offense.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what went right after the Sixers improved to 3-0 on the season in seven games at the Stadium: They put up 80 points in the first half against the Sacramento Kings, the seventh time they’ve done so. As a franchise since 1990, according to Stat.
“Shooting over 50 percent, the ball is moving, the floor is wide. That’s what we’re talking about,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “Tobias (Harris) had nine rebounds, James (Harden) had 15 assists. They’re moving the ball. “They’re playing together. Our spacing is right. It’s good to see.”
Harden needed one more three before the half. pic.twitter.com/IEyMbucE6W
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) December 14, 2022
The Sixers improved to 15-12 on the season with a 123-103 win over Sacramento. More importantly, though, they have a chance to jump-start an offense that lags behind preseason expectations. Six players entered the game ranked 16th in offensive efficiency, per Cleaning The Glass. That number is not enough if you want to be competitive.
Now that Harden and Joel Embiid are back in the lineup (and the team is posting a nice 118.2 offensive rating with both floors), the corner may finally be turning. The first three home games featured three of the Sixers’ best offensive performances, and Tuesday’s first-half effort was outstanding.
“We’re playing pretty well,” Embiid said. “James is doing a great job of making everyone else shoot easy.”
Harden, who finished with an efficient 21 points (7-of-13 field goals, 4-of-7 free throws) and 15 assists, is on a mission to make sure the offense runs smoothly. On most nights, it’s fair to judge him by his team’s offensive performance as opposed to his stats. And he looks set to return to form after showing signs of rust last week after being sidelined for a month due to injury.
The easy shots Embiid mentioned came from up and down the lineup and in a variety of ways. Early detection of damage helps. The Sixers, not a high-frequency transition team, need more easy buckets. “I mean, I’m not fast,” Harden said the other day. While this is true, he can push the pace by hitting forward.
Sheik Milton attacked a Sacramento defense with a primary receiver on Tuesday. Kings who did not have the proper defense force and organization paid the price for their sins. Harden hit Milton three times with rebounds.
How can Milton be best utilized when Harden returns to the lineup? The fourth-year point guard has shown that he is more adept with the ball, as he has been with Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey on the sidelines. But he’s almost ineffective in a pure 3-and-D role, which is sometimes where the Sixers’ stars are all suited up.
At least in Maxey’s absence, Harden is getting Milton involved. In the last four games since Harden’s return, Milton is averaging double figures and shooting 49 percent from the field. The Sixers are a perfect example of how to keep a player who has accepted a minor role in a smooth transition. They need more than that.
“Last time he would get (Milton) and guard James or guard Joel,” Rivers said. “Right now, we’re throwing him around and saying, ‘Go, striker.’ We threw it at him three or four times. Sheik is a monster in the open court and we want him to stay in the open court.
Harden even had some time to try working in the post. That’s something we’ve seen more of from him in recent games, and Rivers mentioned that more “armed” pick-and-rolls with him and Embiid should be the goal. On Tuesday, Harden was using post-ups to spray inside-out shooters. George Niang got two of those shots.
“Georges shot the ball really well tonight, I’m just trying to find a different body to be aggressive,” Harden said.
Harden wasn’t the only one who grew up in Sacramento. Embiid effortlessly finished with 31 points as Sacramento’s two big men (Domantas Sabonis and Neemias Queta) got into foul trouble en route to a 16-point first quarter. Embiid is averaging 40 points on 64 percent shooting in four games since Harden’s return to the lineup and has taken his performance to new heights.
Harris added 21 points, nine assists and seven rebounds and is doing well wearing many hats this season. The team is short and scoring. And while the team has stars, he is an off-ball role player. And without the services of DeAnthony Melton on Tuesday, Harris even defended the lightning-quick DeAaron Fox for stretches.
“When Tobias starts sitting down and starts putting his hands up, you know he’s thinking about defense,” Matisse Thybulle said. “That was something he never did.”
Harris is shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc in volume, and he’s attacking from close range when the ball is moving.
Whether it’s the individual play of Milton, Embiid or Harris, the Sixers have had plenty of individual positive contributions this season. But due to injuries and inconsistent execution, the whole body is not yet total.
As the point guard, it’s Harden’s job to make everything make sense. And while two solid performances against below-average defenses doesn’t make for a great offense, maybe the Sixers can build the right practices as they try to become one.
“I think offensively, it’s just trying to figure out what we’re trying to do to own possessions. That’s the most important thing,” Harden said. If we are here and everyone is on different pages and has their own agendas, and this goes for any team, the attack will not be successful.
(Photo of Harden: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)