PHILADELPHIA — A year ago, James Harden entered the playoffs with the Philadelphia 76ers having played 21 games with his new team, still acclimating to a new environment after arriving here via a blockbuster midseason trade.
On Saturday afternoon, Harden and the 76ers opened up this year’s playoffs against Harden’s old team, the Brooklyn Nets, and he couldn’t have looked more comfortable, finishing with 23 points and 13 assists in 36 minutes in what became a 121-101 Philadelphia win to begin what the 76ers hope will be an extended run through this year’s playoffs.
“I thought that was one of his best games as a ‘catcher,'” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought he called a perfect game.”
The Nets, facing a significant talent disadvantage in this series after the midseason trades in February that sent Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to Phoenix and Dallas, respectively, made it clear that their game plan was to do whatever they could to keep the ball out of Joel Embiid’s hands, and force Philadelphia’s other players to make plays — and, specifically, make shots.
“I mean, he’s the MVP,” Harden said of Embiid. “So it’s like, would you rather him score 40, or live with us making shots? Either way, it’s fine. We’ll be ready either way.”
At least Saturday, both Harden and his 76ers teammates made plenty of them.
Philadelphia shot a staggering 21-for-43 from 3-point range, including hitting 15 uncontested 3-point shots, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information research, its most in any postseason game since ESPN began tracking them in the 2013-14 playoffs. In addition, Philadelphia shot 68% of passes in this game — the franchise’s second-highest percentage in a playoff game since ESPN began tracking that stat in 2014-15.
Rivers credited Embiid for his patience in the first half, allowing the game to come to him — and his teammates to take advantage of the attention being paid to him, something Rivers said Philadelphia had worked on all week in practice, and that he and the coaching staff had discussed with Embiid coming into the series.
“We worked on it all week,” Rivers said. “I give Joel credit, because I thought especially early he was patient and we sold that to him. You are going to wind up with whatever amount of points no matter what happens. And that happened.
“But when you start making everybody else better, and we have James making everybody else better, it makes us a pretty good team.”
But while much of that attention was being paid to Embiid, who finished with 26 points — 16 of which came in the second half — it was Harden who was the one primarily leading the charge to take advantage of it.
“Just trying to be aggressive,” Harden said. “They’re double-teaming Joel, so somebody else has got to try to make shots and be aggressive.
“Just put the work in, and you live with the results.”
While Harden struggled inside the arc, going 1-for-8 on 2-point shots and getting several attempts blocked at the rim, his patented step-back 3-pointer was in prime form, as he went 7-for-13 from deep — including 5-for-7 in the first half alone.
That set the stage for Embiid to quickly assert control over the proceedings in the third quarter, when he scored 10 of his 26 points as Philadelphia pushed the lead to double digits — an advantage that ballooned to as many as 25 in the fourth quarter.
It was, overall, an impressive start to Philadelphia’s quest to make it to at least the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2001. But Embiid, who was named a finalist for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for a third straight season Friday, said that it was important not only for Harden to continue to be what Embiid has consistently been as the NBA’s best playmaker, but to continue being aggressive attacking the rim — even when, as he did in the first half Saturday, he has shots blocked or fails to score, because of how it impacts the opposing team’s defense.
“Like I’ve said, he’s the best playmaker in the league, by far,” Embiid said of Harden, “but we don’t want him settling. I don’t want him to fall in love with just that. We need him to be aggressive, and he was today.
“I think that’s the key — not just being a playmaker, just being aggressive, going downhill and creating for himself and everyone else.”
Brooklyn hung around thanks to its own impressive shooting performance, shooting 55% overall and 13-for-29 from 3-point range led by the latest scintillating performance from former Villanova star Mikal Bridges since he was acquired from Phoenix in the Durant trade, as he scored 30 points on 12-for-18 shooting.
But the Sixers took 19 more shots, thanks to forcing the Nets into 20 turnovers (which became 31 76ers points) while only committing nine themselves, and also enjoyed a 14-5 edge in offensive rebounding.
After the game, Nets coach Jacque Vaughn had a message for the officials for Game 2 here at Wells Fargo Center on Monday night after he felt Embiid got away with a few things in Saturday’s opening game of the series.
“Hopefully they’ll be calling traveling and defensive three seconds on the big fella next game,” Vaughn said. “So, I look forward to that.”