It’s finally here. The day that we’ve been waiting for. James Harden will be in a Sixers uniform and playing for the Sixers tonight in Minnesota. While both teams have been playing very well of late, the real story and all of the focus will be on Harden and how he fits in with his new team.
The Timberwolves Are on a Roll
The Timberwolves come into the game, having won last night against the Memphis Grizzlies 119-114. Back-to-back games immediately after the All-Star break may not be ideal, but the Wolves have won eight of their last eleven games and have been rolling. They’ve moved up to 7th place in the Western Conference standings and boast a good young core of players.
The Wolves are led by Karl Anthony-Towns, who’s averaging 24.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. The newly crowned three-point contest winner has a very good offensive game, but it’s not spent in the low post as much as someone of his size. At 6’11” and 248 lbs, Towns has to deal with Joel Embiid. Although they have a history of aggression, the two squashed any issues last year as Towns’ tragically lost his mother due to COVID complications. Embiid and Towns were friends in high school and what may have started as a friendly rivalry quickly got out of hand. But, they’ve mended their differences and seem to enjoy the back and forth in a more friendly manner now. That doesn’t mean that things won’t be rough for Towns as Embiid is enjoying an MVP type of season, and his game is borderline unstoppable this year.
Minnesota also relies heavily on former #1 overall draft pick Anthony Edwards, who’s been every bit as good as advertised in the league. Edwards is averaging 21.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists this season. At 6’4″ and 225 lbs, Edwards has the size to make life difficult for the Sixers defense and will look to enforce his will against Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, and James Harden.
In addition to their two stars, the Wolves have a good mix of players like Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverly, D’Angelo Russell, and others. They present a good challenge for the new-look Sixers, but they may not have enough talent to match up with this new version of the Sixers.
The Sixers Are Ready to Take It to the Next Level.
Here we go, Philadelphia fans. This is what they’ve wanted since the team started “the process” all of those years ago. The Sixers boast two certified NBA stars in MVP front-runner Joel Embiid and the newly acquired James Harden. The Sixers haven’t played since last Thursday’s 123-120 win over the defending champion, Milwaulkee Bucks. They’ve won four of their last six games and looking to start a long streak with Harden in the mix.
Joel Embiid has been the absolute MVP of the league for the first portion of the season, and it’s not even close. While Nikola Jokic is posting his insane numbers, Embiid has taken his game to another level. Without the need to share with or sometimes defer to Ben Simmons, Embiid has taken over as the true star in the city and the league. He’s leading the league in scoring at 29.6 points per game to go along with 11.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists. Embiid is also blocking 1.4 shots per game and averaging a steal as well. He’s shooting almost 50% from the field and 37% on three-pointers. He’s just been as close to unstoppable as any big man in the league since Shaquille O’Neal. It would be surprising if Embiid didn’t have another “career” night, which seems to happen more and more frequently this season.
The real story, though, is James Harden. Arguably one of the top ten players in the league over the past decade, Harden coming to Philadelphia is just what the team needed. That second star to pair with Embiid, that’s used to the spotlight and rarely falters. Harden is, on the season, averaging 22.5 points per game to go along with 8 rebounds and 10.2 assists. Almost a triple-double for a guy that most of the commentators have said is having a “down year”. The Sixers represent the best chance for Harden to win the NBA Championship that has eluded him so far in his career.
Based on his interactions in practice and on the bench during the Bucks game, Harden looks to be highly motivated, highly invested, set on teaching and working with the younger team, and ready to attack in order to get the team to the NBA Finals.
“It’s a time where I needed to be around guys that I know want to win and know that they are willing to do whatever it takes to win, and the structure here is unbelievable. [Winning a title is] the goal, man. That’s the goal. Like Daryl [Morey] said: The opportunity to win is now. Joel is playing the best he’s ever played. So my job is to come out there and help him and help the entire team win a championship this year and in years going forward.”
An invested and determined Harden is scary to think about. A Harden that is looking to also improve his teammates, not just on the floor but during practice and off the court, is something that will resonate throughout the organization as the season goes on. You can see the work he put in with Tyrese Maxey during the Bucks game, already paying off. He’s worked, in practice with Embiid, on the mechanics of his patented “step-back jump shot, and Embiid seems to have caught on quick.
Guard Tyrese Maxey and forward Tobias Harris are coming in, averaging almost 17 and 20 points per game, respectively. While both have been forced into roles they were unexpected to play this season, they’ve both done very well. Maxey has established himself as a future star in the league, and Harris has been chugging along, even as he became the “second-star” for the first part of the season.
Harden’s arrival now takes the pressure off of both of them. Harris will be able to take a step back and play as the team’s third option, a place where he’s had great success over the past few years. Maxey will not be tasked with having to run the offense all of the time and can focus on getting open when playing off the ball. His 39% shooting on three-pointers may go up over 40% with Harden being able to draw defenses and his superior court vision and passing ability. Both Harris and Maxey may see their stats increase as the season moves toward the conclusion.
It’s Over Ladies and Gentlemen
While the Sixers have been fighting for their current third-place ranking in the Eastern Conference, the acquisition of James Harden has to put them at the top in the East. Harden pushing Maxey to drive off picks, Georges Niang to shoot ten three-pointers in a game, getting open looks for Harris, and feeding Embiid in the post are all great moving forward. But he’s also able to fill up the scoring sheet, and that’s what he’ll be counted on to do in order for the Sixers to have a long playoff run.
It all starts tonight in Minnesota, against a Timberwolves team that may not realize what they’re up against. After tonight, it should be all over for the rest of the Eastern Conference. The Sixers are coming, and they just so happen to have the players to make them unstoppable.
Final Score Prediction
Sixers – 117 | Timberwolves – 102