After a night in which James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers couldn’t have played better together, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves 133-102 in his debut with his new team, the superstar guard took aim at the suggestion he is a bad teammate.
“I don’t know why,” Harden said. “That’s the media that says that. I feel like I’m one of the best teammates that the NBA has seen, on the court and off the court. Just because the current situation happened, whatever happened, happened, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad teammate. Me personally, I feel like I just needed to do what’s best for my career and help myself be happy.”
Harden looked awfully happy on the floor Friday night, finishing with 27 points, 8 rebounds and 12 assists to become the first player with at least 25 points and 12 assists in his first game with three different teams.
It was a dream debut for Harden and the 76ers (36-23), who did what they wanted to the Timberwolves (32-29). They blew the game open in the second half with crisp passing, a steady dose of Harden and Joel Embiid pick-and-rolls and the Sixers hitting 19 of 39 shots from behind the 3-point line thanks to creating so many wide-open looks.
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Afterward, Harden made it clear it was just the beginning of what he hopes will end with Philadelphia’s first NBA championship in almost four decades.
“For sure,” Harden said when asked if he has a point to prove in Philadelphia. “We all do. Tonight was a great start. But we’ve got a long way to go, and we’ll do whatever it takes every single day to build great habits so we are prepared when the time is right.”
Those habits will begin and end with the partnership between Harden and Embiid, which looked to be in midseason form in their first game together. The Timberwolves, who lead the league in fouls per game, might have been the perfect opponent to exploit for Harden and Embiid, two of the league’s best at drawing fouls.
Not surprisingly, they went to the line a combined 22 times. Harden’s step-back jumper was on full display Friday night, when he made four of them, including two on which he drew and-1 fouls to produce 4-point plays.
And while Harden and Embiid’s pick-and-roll partnership looked clunky at times, it created one wide-open shot after another for their teammates and each other.
“It was great,” Embiid said. “Like I said, it never happened at any point in my career, to that level. As you know I’ve always had to create for myself. … But it’s not just about me. It’s also about our team.
“All the attention that he attracts or I do, it’s going to make our teammates better, and that’s the goal, because we can’t win alone. We’re going to need all of them. … It’s about giving them that confidence, because when we get to the playoffs, we’re going to need them.”
One of those other players who looked to have supreme confidence was Tyrese Maxey, who had 28 points on 12-for-16 shooting. Maxey had been serving as Philadelphia’s point guard all season in the absence of Ben Simmons and impressed with his speed and quickness.
Those qualities were on display repeatedly Friday night, as Maxey got wherever he wanted on the court for open floaters and layups by knifing through the defense at will. He even knocked down a couple of catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, both of which came with him completely wide open due to the defense collapsing on both of Philadelphia’s stars.
“Yeah. It has to,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said when asked if playing alongside Embiid and Harden will make life easier for everyone else. “You have Joel Embiid and James Harden on the floor, and they are gonna draw a lot of attention.
“All we talked about in this day and a half, two days, is spacing and being ready when the ball comes. And I thought our guys overall did that.”
Maxey admitted he was thrilled to now be on Harden’s side, as opposed to having to try to stop him. He laughed as he described the experience of guarding Harden’s step-back, saying you just have to shrug when “you touch him and he gets a foul.”
“I mean, that comes because of his ability to pass the ball,” Maxey said of Harden. “They are so worried about his passing and they are laying off and now he’s creating for himself. So he’s a talent, and I just appreciate his hard work and his communication and his dedication.”
With Harden now on the court, Rivers had a chance to demonstrate whether he would follow through on his vow of staggering his four best offensive players — Embiid, Harden, Tobias Harris and Maxey — as well as having at least one of Harden and Maxey on the floor at all times.
The logic was sound, as it would allow the 76ers to maximize their offense for as much of the game as possible. But it also is something Rivers has typically shied away from in the past.
True to his word, however, Rivers started Friday night’s game doing just that. His first substitutions of the game, at the five-minute mark of the first quarter, were to take out Harden and Harris and replace them with Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang. Throughout the game — outside of 54 seconds across two stints late in the first quarter — Rivers stuck to having at least two of the four on the floor at all times. There also was never a time when either Harden or Maxey was off the court except for a defense-only possession to end the first.
That plan got thrown off-kilter in the second half, however, when Maxey went to the bench early in the third with his fourth foul, leading to Rivers having an all-bench lineup on the court for a couple of minutes late in the end of the third quarter.
Ultimately, though, this game was about Harden and Embiid, and for a 76ers team that spent months waiting to see what would happen with Simmons, Friday night was, for at least one night, an example of why 76ers general manager Daryl Morey waited for the right player to come along before trading Simmons away.
Friday night’s win marked just the first of 24 games in a sprint to the end of the regular season for Philadelphia. But it was a dream debut for Harden and his new teammates, one that left all of them excited about what lies ahead.
“We just want to win,” Harden said. “My job is to just come and add to it.”
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