Bucks down Sixers, 90-88, spoil James Harden’s comeback

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Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden, right, tries to get past Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

After falling just short against the Boston Celtics on the NBA’s opening night, the Philadelphia 76ers hosted former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks for their first home game of the season. The Sixers had a tall task ahead of them to avoid an 0-2 start to their 2022-2023 campaign.

After the first 38 minutes of play, it seemed almost certain that Joel Embiid, James Harden, and the rest of the Sixers would have to climb out of a small two-game hole to start their year. Despite a massive advantage in points scored in the paint, Philadelphia found themselves down 13 points with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Normally, a 13-point deficit is a small obstacle to clear, but considering the fact that the Sixers had scored just 67 points total at that juncture, that lead seemed insurmountable. Joel Embiid was struggling to get into a rhythm, stifled by Brook Lopez‘s massive frame in the post and settling for wayward mid range jumpers far too often.

Going the other way, the elder Lopez brother continually found himself open behind the arc and took advantage, finishing with 17 points and four triples made. The Greek Freak had a relatively quiet night for his standards (21 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists) but effectively shut down the Sixers’ attack as a weak side rim protector and continually collapsed Philadelphia’s defense to create openings for his teammates.

With Embiid slouching through a cold spell and the Sixers staring up at a 13-point deficit, the boobirds at Wells Fargo Center couldn’t help but let loose as their perennial seven-foot-tall MVP candidate settled for another jumper.

But then it started.

9:49 remaining: James Harden draws a shooting foul on Wesley Matthews and hits both free throws. The Bucks’ lead is cut to eleven, 80-69.

9:19: Harden hits a short floater. 80-71.

8:41: Harden strokes a 20-foot step-back jumper. 80-73.

7:44: Tobias Harris cashes in on a straightaway triple. 80-76.

7:14: Danuel House finishes an alley-oop layup off of a Harden dump off. 80-78.

6:42: P.J. Tucker comes up with a steal at half-court and lasers the ball down to Harden, who lays it in. Tie ball game.

In the span of three minutes, James Harden erased the boos and low grumbling of the crowd and gave them the full former MVP experience. With each consecutive basket, the audience grew more raucous in their applause as the Beard instilled more confidence in a potential comeback. By the time he tied it up, the entire arena was on their feet for Harden.

A monumental detail about that three-minute stretch? Joel Embiid was on the bench for the entirety of it.

It may be unfair to Embiid, but his insertion into the lineup effectively ended the momentum that Harden had built in that 13-0 run. The offense slowed back down to a bog as he and the Beard jostled for control.

In the end, some sloppy late-game execution cost the Sixers the game and spoiled Harden’s epic night. With 31 points, nine assists, and eight boards, the “Year of the Beard” may be off to a great start, but Philadelphia remains winless through two games.

Head Coach Doc Rivers has some important work to do over the course of this early season. No issue is more paramount than solving Embiid’s effort and body language, as the Cameroonian giant seemed thoroughly disinterested in anything other than shooting the ball before Harden was able to tie up the game. He finished with just 15 points on 6-21 shooting while committing four turnovers.

Thankfully for the Sixers, their upcoming schedule affords them some cannon fodder for them to figure out their pecking order and chemistry as they’ll take on the San Antonio Spurs at home on Saturday, October 22, before hosting the Indiana Pacers two days later.