Sixers ready for Finals run as Embiid and Harden fight for legacy

Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden, left, and Joel Embiid celebrate after a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

There is a lot of chatter about whether Joel Embiid and James Harden heading into the postseason. The incessant conversation has already started, with Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers deftly taking reporters through his process.

On the one hand, Rivers and the Sixers’ training staff have a plan perfectly mapped out for their two most important players. But, as everyone is aware, in the unpredictable world of sports, things happen to alter best intentions. Rivers also has the benefit of a week off, thanks to the play-in tournament.

“I’m not worried about rest as much anymore,” Rivers told reporters on March 29. “That’s the one great thing about the play-in. You do get a little bit of time to practice and rest. We are probably way more focused on conditioning than we are rest.”

Back in March, Embiid played five straight games since taking a controversial night off due to right calf soreness against the Denver Nuggets. During that time then strengthened his strong case for MVP after coming back: 151 points, 49 rebounds, 17 assists, and two blocks with the Sixers going 3-2. The 7-footer leads the NBA in points per game (33.1) and ranks second in total points (2,183; 42 behind Jayson Tatum).

Embiid continued rise up the KIA MVP Tracker as the regular season came to a close, but he has bigger goals than a piece of hardware doled out for individual accomplishments. His goal is to kiss the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June and raise it with his fellow Sixers. Legacy and championships are the only things that matter to the confident Cameroonian when all the dust, and hopefully confetti, settles on the hardwood. He doesn’t care if Nikola Jokic adds a third MVP trophy to his mantle as long as he’s polishing a different one.

“I don’t care if I win it or not,” Embiid said, referring to the MVP award. “I’m just focused on trying to win a championship, and whatever happens, happens. If I win, great. And if I don’t win anything, I don’t care … Like I said, it’s all about the playoffs. There’s a bigger goal in sight. That’s to make sure we’re healthy for the playoffs.”

James Harden: ‘Only Thing I’m Missing is a Championship’.

Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden (1) advances the ball against the Dallas Mavericks in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Harden is the other piece of the Sixers’ championship puzzle. He has been dealing with soreness in his left Achilles tendon and missed four consecutive contests in late March. Again, the Sixers are being extra cautious with their superstars, choosing to rest them over risking further injury, even if it means sliding down the standings and altering their playoff seeding.

The Sixers understand they aren’t going to be raising any banners without Harden in the starting five. He has turned in an under-the-radar case for MVP during the 2022-23 season: 21.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and a league-leading 10.8 assists per game. His five triple-doubles rank sixth-best in the NBA. Harden has been the facilitator for everything the Sixers do offensively. But, just like his good buddy Embiid, the only thing that matters is legacy and championship.

Harden doesn’t do many 1-on-1 interviews (if any), but when he does, he speaks from the heart. The 10-time All-Star guard became animated when Yaron Weitzman of FOX Sports asked him if he cared about how people were going to remember him as a player:

“So, of course, I care, but people are going to talk no matter what. But I care about, like, winning and things that are important and matter. I don’t care about things that don’t matter, that are gonna be a story for 24 or 48 hours and then go away.

“I’m one of the people that changed the game of basketball,” he continued. “Honestly, the only thing that I’m missing is a championship.”

Joel Embiid: Sixers ‘Probably Going to Win a Championship’

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid reacts after the 76ers won an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Friday, March 10, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Sixers haven’t gotten out of the second round of the playoffs since 2000-01; coincidentally, the franchise got to the NBA Finals that year guided by the incomparable Allen Iverson. They lost and haven’t been back. On paper, this year’s edition is certainly good enough to buck the trend.

It all starts with the big man in the middle, a guy who has been playing like a man possessed in recent weeks and earning kudos from everyone around the league.

“He plays at a high level and has Philly looking to win a championship,” Dallas Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said of Embiid. “I think at some point Embiid is probably going to win a championship and also an MVP.”