“We didn’t follow the game plan”
James Harden and the 76ers’ bad chemistry
BY HENRY ABBOTT
Late in the third quarter, once the Heat were truly blowing out the 76ers in Game 5, TNT’s Chris Haynes said:
I noticed something about Joel Embiid at shootaround this morning. It seems like his energy level has been low. He stayed away from teammates, he stayed sat off to himself. He didn’t really speak to anybody. I went and had a brief chat. It was small talk. Didn’t know if he was just mad at the MVP, but if you look at this game right here, his energy level has been low.
Haynes added: “I did talk to a Sixers staffer; they said he’s not sick from what they know.”
This picked up a theme Charles Barkley had hammered at halftime.
“Joel Embiid,” he declared, “is so distracted by this MVP thing, he’s not there tonight. He’s got six points but he’s not been aggressive; he’s throwing the ball away.”
Shaquille O’Neal agreed, saying he expected Embiid to average 30 like he had in the regular season. “He’s settling,” said O’Neal, as the screen showed video of the big man taking jumpers. “He’s distracted; he’s not on pace.”
Kenny Smith added that the 76ers “... look very distracted.”
Embiid certainly wasn’t himself. But watch carefully, and you might notice something besides the MVP vote, which went to Embiid’s rival Jokić, and Embiid’s injuries. What’s hanging over the 76ers is the reality that—now that the team is under stress—James Harden has been a bummer of a teammate.
Halfway through the first quarter, Tyrese Maxey poked a ball free which came to Embiid. He’s the biggest, slowest man on the court, but led the break anyway. As he crossed half court, the 76ers had a two-on-one. To his right was Maxey, one of the fastest players in the NBA; the only Heat player back was Max Strus. Advantage, 76ers.
Embiid slid a pass to his wingman, but Bam Adebayo—who had raced into the play—forced a miss. As the rebound bounced into no-man’s land by the free-throw line, Embiid wheeled around to see which of his teammates could save the play.
Danny Green was spotted up on the wrong side of the court to get this loose ball. Tobias Harris was glued to Jimmy Butler, 40 feet away. And James Harden … James Harden hadn’t moved more than a few steps toward the play, and was at the opposite free-throw line. Embiid flung his arms in a little moment of heartbreak.
Strus scooped up the loose ball and flew down the right wing with the ball. Maybe they had screwed up the break with a lack of effort, but at least the 76ers had defenders back?
Not the most creative player off the dribble, Strus made a calculated decision. With Green in hot pursuit, he paused for a hesitation dribble at the 3-point line, then attacked right down the lane. It was a bet against Harden’s defensive intensity, and it was a good one. Harden barely moved; Strus scored one of the easiest layups of the season. The 76ers would have had a lead if they had scored on their fast break. Instead, they now trailed 13-10.
Green grabbed the ball to inbound it. A yard away, Harden had his hands up to catch the inbounds pass. Green pointedly fired the ball instead to Tobias Harris, a power forward who rarely brings the ball up, three times as far away.
Harden clapped angrily, right at Harris, who shoveled him a pass.
Over the next nine seconds, Harden would dribble 11 times. The Heat’s Gabe Vincent guarded him closely. Strus had almost entirely abandoned Harris on the left wing to lurk close to the ball, eyes 100 percent on Harden, ready to help should Harden drive left.
Jimmy Butler hovered in a similar position to Harden’s right.
Harden looked into a wall of three defenders.
Everyone knows what Doc Rivers wants from his team on offense. He says it every day; his players parrot it back in press conferences. In a few minutes, cameras will catch him in an animated timeout, repeating it again: “We gotta get the floor spaced. And we gotta get the ball moving. The ball rarely touches the paint. Right. RIGHT? That’s what we gotta do right now.”
With the Heat’s entire defense in his lap, Harden had infinite possibilities to follow orders and move the ball. Embiid had Adebayo sealed in the lane—it’s a hard pass, but one Harden has made many times. The simplest pass, to his left, would be to a wide-open Harris, with his choice of an easy 3 or a great angle to Embiid. On the right wing, Maxey and Green’s defenders had eyes on Harden.
Harden put his head down and drove right. Butler seemed delighted, as if a waiter had arrived with a tray of drinks. He reached out one hand, plucking the ball cleanly from Harden and up into the air. Harden stopped fighting, raised both hands in low-grade referee protest, and jogged away from the Heat’s hoop as the action went the other way. The loose ball popped into P.J. Tucker’s hands. Butler raced the floor, chased by Maxey. Tucker lobbed a pass forward, and Butler got a wide open dunk. Heat by five.
With Harden at the other end, Maxey inbounded to Green. The two of them passed it back and forth. Before long, Embiid had pushed Adebayo all the way to the free-throw line. The entire painted area was Embiid’s, if only someone could get him the ball.
Green was in about the same spot from which Harden had just refused to find an open Embiid. To Green’s right, Harden held his hands up, calling for the ball.
Green blew off Harden again, lofting the ball toward Embiid and his clear highway to the rim. But Green fired it way too hard, too determined, too much. Embiid leaped to save the bad pass and crashed out of bounds as Adebayo led the fast break. After Strus buried a 3, putting the Heat up 18-10, the camera caught Embiid doubled over in pain, grabbing his back, as the 76ers called timeout.
Watch Harden all game, and you’ll see plenty of evidence he’s out of sync with his teammates:
After TNT showed video of Rivers begging his team to play with more force, commentator Grant Hill quipped, “You can’t coach effort.” Just then the Heat’s Victor Oladipo had an idea about how to beat Harden: run fast. It absolutely worked. Harden loped after the play, then sent Adebayo to the line with a foul.
At one point Embiid hit the deck, and two teammates raced to help him up. Harden turned and walked away.
There was a play at the end of the first quarter where Embiid clearly directed Harden to swing the ball to Thybulle on the left wing. Harden replied by asking Embiid to set him a screen, which Embiid did halfheartedly. The play failed. At the next dead ball, Georges Niang ran over to Harden, making the same call sign Embiid had been making. Why didn’t Harden run the play? Harden talked to Embiid, looking like he might be apologizing.
After the game, Harden arrived, loudly and distractingly, to what seemed to begin as a Tobias Harris press conference. Near the end, there was a confusingly worded question about how the team should counter Miami’s aggressive defense of Embiid.
Harden: “Are you talking about me passing him the ball?”
Q: “Just your whole offense with the way they’re defending Joel.”
Harden: “What are you asking me?”
Q: “Is it a matter of getting him the ball in better spots? Or other players kinda working off the help schemes …”
Harden: “I think it’s a little bit of both. I think we can make it easier on Jo. Getting him the ball tighter, closer to the basket. And once they are double-teaming, or showing their bodies from wherever position they are, we gotta do a better job of making ourselves available. But then also we can’t just try to force-feed the ball into him. We gotta be players out there, and just go out there and be aggressive.”
When it was his turn, Embiid refused to be specific about his injuries, but they loomed large. He had spent part of the game on the bench after a blow to his injured eye, a doctor digging his thumb around his orbital socket. Another time he grabbed his back after a hard collision with the photographers on press row. He said he thought answering a question about injuries put him in a “lose-lose situation.” If he sits out, he explained, people will say he’s soft. If he plays injured, and plays badly, “People will come up with a bunch of other stuff.”
All Embiid can do, he said, is “... dig very deep, do whatever I can.”
When asked about the MVP vote, he congratulated Nikola Jokić, and mentioned Giannis Antetokounmpo and Devin Booker as worthy. But he did allow some disappointment: “I don’t know what else I have to do to win it.” He mentioned Bill Simmons’ podcast, Jalen Green, and the idea that some voters might have vendettas against some players. To Embiid, this seemed unfair. “Whatever you guys decide, whatever fits the narrative,” he said to a room full of media. But that Jokić would win, Embiid says, “This is something I knew weeks ago.”
He noodled with the idea he could be more assertive, but ultimately seemed to reject the Barkley theory: “I had the right mindset about what I wanted to accomplish.”
Embiid had another reason on his mind, though, about why the 76ers had lost. His comments were peppered throughout his 10-minute talk:
“We didn’t follow the game plan.”
“We didn’t move the ball.”
“You see how they were guarding me. They were not allowing me to catch the ball. It’s hard for me to have the ball in my hands.”
“SHARE THE BALL.”
And, ominously: “There’s a lot going on.”
When Harden says, “We gotta be players out there,” it’s hard to argue. The question is: Who gets to be a player? It’s a battle for control of the ball. This team’s core—Embiid, Harris, Thybulle, Green, and even Niang—have been together for a while and have had a lot of success. When Harden’s calling for a screen with seven seconds left on the shot clock, it can seem like maybe only he gets to be a player.
I’ll be watching Game 6 looking for signs that the 76ers would rather Harden not control the ball. Watch the highlights of Harden scoring at will down the stretch of Game 4—notice how little his teammates congratulate him. The whole arena is going bananas, play after play, and Harden gets one or two tepid fives.
Everyone noticed Embiid looked unenthused in Game 5. I can imagine several reasons why that might be. One might be that he spent five years with one malcontented co-star, and now—while playing incredibly beat up—seems to be flirting with another, who’s older, less willing to pass, and makes more money. Harden is two years into his decline and due for a massive contract extension. The team is run by Daryl Morey, who is a decade into a bad case of Harden fever. Doc Rivers looks exasperated daily, and his name is popping up as a candidate for other jobs.
Will the 76ers make it to the promised land, or will James Harden dribble out the clock?
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