Sixers statement earns Bucks reminder season may hinge on James Harden

MILWAUKEE — After scoring 19 points in the final 12 minutes against the league’s best defense, orchestrating a 14-point fourth-quarter road comeback and ending a 16-game winning streak, James Harden was pretty pragmatic.

“That’s what I do, man,” Harden said. “I’m just very comfortable in those situations, whether it’s playing or scoring. I’ve been doing it for a long time. »

Harden has been playing at a high level for a long time and he will end up in Springfield. But since the start of training camp in Charleston, SC, the biggest swing factor for the 2022-23 Philadelphia 76ers has remained the same: what equipment keeps the 33-year-old, playing in his 14th NBA season, perhaps he constantly reach? Roughly how much does he have left in the tank?

The results have been encouraging. Harden may not have been selected as an All-Star, but his numbers and his game were worthy of being All-Star. His main role is a playmaker who force-feeds Joel Embiid in the pick-and-roll. When he was called, there were enough flashes of the elite isolation scorer who set Houston records to offer some hope.

Harden is going to be judged on his performances on the biggest stages. The playoffs, the real litmus test, are still over a month away. But as for tries, here’s Harden’s performance on Saturday night: He finished with 38 points (11 of 26 from the field, 11 of 11 from the free throw line), 10 assists, two turnovers and nine rebounds. in a thrilling 133-130 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

“I thought James made good decisions,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “He was obviously a goalscorer tonight, but he was also a leader.”

The Sixers (41-22) have their share of impressive wins. Some came while the team was outnumbered, while others came against elite opponents. This one certainly fell into the latter category.

Consider this: The Bucks not only have the best defense in the league, but they also shot 17 of 34 from beyond the arc Saturday at Fiserv Forum. In a personal 20-point third quarter, Grayson Allen rained fire on the Sixers. There was no Laddergate 2.0 this time around, as Giannis Antetokounmpo shot 16 of 18 from the line. Brook Lopez, possibly the toughest home and away game for Embiid in the entire league, pitted the Sixers star to a relative draw.

The Sixers still found a way to win. Since the All-Star break, they have played six times. Four of those were one-possession games in the dying seconds against playoff teams, which the Sixers split. It’s been more than a week of high quality, stressful basketball.

So what does this series of games mean?

“They’re important, I guess, but they’re more fun,” Rivers said. “They’re important because we came on the road, they were playing really well, they had a streak, we broke the streak…so, a fun game, a competitive game. Both teams wanted the game.

For better or worse, Rivers isn’t one to dwell on regular season wins or losses. He added: “But you know, we got Indiana in two days. We’re going to focus on that.

But Saturday’s victory deserves a bit of attention since these two teams could meet in the second round of the playoffs. And the players surrounding the stars were an intriguing development in the Sixers’ win. Harden, Embiid and Tyrese Maxey combined for 95 points, and in critical time they were joined by a few unlikely faces.

Midway through the game, the Sixers lost two starters. Tobias Harris left the match with a strained left calf, while PJ Tucker suffered back spasms soon after. Tucker moved cautiously around the locker room after the game. The shorthanded Sixers were forced to close with a different look. And it was Georges Niang and Jalen McDaniels who each played more than 11 minutes in the fourth quarter.

Niang has been a key contributor for the Sixers this season but has struggled lately. In his last 10 games before Saturday, he was making 23% of his 3s and just 33% of his field goals. In a triumphant small-ball win over Miami, Niang received a DNP-CD. But on Saturday, he bounced back spectacularly with 5 of 6 shots from beyond the arc.

“Obviously I wasn’t doing my job at a high level, to the best of my abilities,” Niang said. “But tonight was a good way to get back on track and you just want to build on that. Winning is obviously the main goal. So the fact that I didn’t play in Miami but we “Winning was huge. Losing to Dallas sucked. And the fact that we could get a road win here was really important.

While it would be nice if the Sixers had a consistent playoff rotation, that may not be the case. No composition stands out. And Niang’s performance against Milwaukee could hint that different players could be called up for different matchups. For most of the game, Milwaukee avoided Tucker when he had the ball. Specifically, Antetokounmpo was ignoring his former teammate in the corners.

While Niang might not be a perfect option against a team like Miami, Milwaukee seems to be a different story. That’s because Niang makes teams pay to load up against Embiid and Harden. In a game midway through last season against the Bucks, Niang replaced Matisse Thybulle and the Sixers were on their way to a win. The same thing happened on Saturday with Tucker filling the role of Thybulle.

Niang even made Antetokounmpo pay twice.

Niang jokes that he is “a basketball player”, but that’s the life of a shooting specialist. When your shots come in, you do your job. If they don’t, you aren’t. Despite the recent slump, Niang is shooting 40.7% from beyond the arc this season. This is exactly in line with his career averages. He hits the back of his baseball card.

“We kept telling him you’re a shooter, we’re not putting you there for defense. Keep shooting the ball,” Rivers said.

Harden is still one of the league’s elite isolation players. According to Synergy Sports, he ranks in the 100th percentile in isolation volume and the 84th percentile (1,142 points per possession) in isolated scoring efficiency. With this skill in mind, Niang can be deployed as a weapon for Harden.

The Sixers went hunting with Khris Middleton, who was defending Niang. Specifically, they wanted the ultra-annoying Jrue Holiday to switch with Middleton from Harden. To get this change, the Sixers went to a dual-screen game called 2 Down, Thumb Up. The first choice is Niang on Harden, who throws himself into a Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll.

Other times it was simpler: Niang threw Harden, the Sixers got the change, and Harden was isolated with his favorite game. While Milwaukee has the best defense in the league, there are a few weaker defenders Harden can attack in isolation than, say, Boston. That’s something to keep in mind for the playoffs.

McDaniels, the trade deadline acquisition, is not used to playing in big games. He’s had his ups and downs since making his Sixers debut a few weeks ago. But he made some massive attacking plays in the final three minutes: After Antetokounmpo fouled him on a 3-point attempt, McDaniels made all three free throws. And after getting so close to highlight dunks on several occasions, he crashed out of the corner and finished a snap back on a miss from Embiid.

McDaniels also defended Holiday down the stretch, and while Holiday executed the two-man game well with Antetokounmpo, McDaniels didn’t seem out of place to defend him.

If these two teams meet in the playoffs, a big question would be how well Embiid matches Antetokounmpo. If Embiid can avoid mistakes, the answer is probably quite often. Lopez is a 38% shooter who can stress Embiid on pick-and-pop jumpers, and frankly, Embiid has some of the best physical tools to defend Antetokounmpo in the league.

In the aftermath, the Sixers put Niang on Lopez and Embiid on Antetokounmpo. With Embiid waiting at the basket, Antetokounmpo threw the ball straight at him. One was called a block, the other a load.

“It’s not easy to keep it, but when you’re 7-2, you can move and you’re that strong, it doesn’t get easy but gets a lot easier,” Embiid said. “Because he’s so strong and he’s going so hard, it’s kind of like a back dive towards you, and you just have to figure it out and hope for the best.”

Embiid finished with 31 points, 10 assists and six rebounds. Afterwards, he was quick to mention that it wasn’t his best game. Backup center Paul Reed gave the Sixers a major boost from the bench.

Still, Embiid found a way to make winning time plays. Twice late in the game, Embiid forced Antetokounmpo to shoot him and the Sixers got some key saves. On the other side, he drilled the green light.

The Sixers were far from perfect on Saturday. They made mistakes in executing the game plan throughout the first three quarters. Defending the transition is a major issue. But the Sixers fought back anyway and ended the Bucks’ 16-game winning streak. It shows resilience, but don’t forget the talent of the Sixers either.

“We should try to find a way not to put ourselves in these positions in the first place, so that we don’t have to (come back) again,” Embiid said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

If the Sixers are looking for a title for their 2022-23 video yearbook, their star may have chosen one: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

(Top photo of Khris Middleton and James Harden: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

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