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Monday, May 09, 2022

Embiid and Harden Lead the Way as 76ers Tie Heat Series at 2-2

Is the James Harden "concert tour" over, or was it just postponed for one night? After shooting .385 from the field in the first three games of Philadelphia's second round playoff series versus Miami with field goal numbers that looked like concert tour dates (5-13, 6-15, 4-11), James Harden scored a team-high 31 points on 8-18 field goal shooting as the 76ers beat the Heat 116-108 to tie the series at 2-2. Harden also had seven rebounds plus a game-high nine assists. The only major blemish on his boxscore line is that he coughed up six turnovers. In the fourth quarter, Harden scored 16 points on 5-9 field goal shooting, and he did not commit any turnovers. In the first three games of this series, Harden scored 10 second half points while shooting 3-14 from the field (.214), including 0-8 from three point range. It is not good when a player's field goal numbers look like concert tour dates and when his field goal percentage would not even be a good batting average.

Harden's game four numbers and the highlight videos of his big plays are important things to remember and consider, because they refute the "James Harden is old and should be cut a lot of slack for declining numbers" narrative that has become so popular. No, Harden is still able to get to the hoop, he is still able to create separation, and he is still capable of making shots, which means that if he fails to do those things moving forward then no excuses should be offered on his behalf.

Of course, it is easier for the little brother to be assertive when the big brother is nearby to maintain order. The 76ers' MVP candidate Joel Embiid missed the first two games of this series after suffering a concussion and an orbital fracture in their first round game six win versus Toronto, but Embiid made a major difference in Philadelphia's game three victory, and he was even more dominant in Philadelphia's game four win (24 points on 7-13 field goal shooting, game-high 11 rebounds). Embiid shuts down the paint defensively, and he is a scoring machine in the paint offensively; his presence distorts Miami's offense while enhancing Philadelphia's offense not only with his own efficient shooting but also by creating space to make life easier for the team's perimeter shooters (including Harden).

Jimmy Butler poured in a game-high 40 points on 13-20 field goal shooting and he dished for six assists, but he did not receive nearly enough help. Bam Adebayo had solid numbers (21 points, seven rebounds, four assists), but Embiid outplayed him by a wider margin than the boxscore numbers suggest.

Embiid set the tone in the first quarter with 15 points on 5-6 field goal shooting while Harden did not score, but in the second period Harden scored 13 points on 3-4 field goal shooting while Embiid was scoreless. The roles flipped again in the third quarter as Embiid scored nine points while Harden scored two points, and then in the fourth quarter Harden scored 16 points while Embiid did not score. This is the kind of dynamic duo, tag team performance that the 76ers hoped to see during most games after trading for Harden--and this is also one home win by a team that must win in Miami to advance to the next round. The standard for superstar excellence used to be consistently great performance, not one very good game every once in a while.

I picked Miami to win this series in five games if Embiid did not play, and Miami to win this series in six games if Embiid played. My expectations have not changed; I believe that Miami will win at home in game five, and then win a close game on the road in game six. Miami will shoot much better at home, while Philadelphia will not shoot as well, and then when the series shifts back to Philadelphia look for the Heat to be much more aggressive and active defensively than they were in game four; Embiid has a matchup advantage one on one versus any Heat player, so the best way to counter that is not just trapping, but very aggressive trapping that forces the 76ers to play faster and not take the shots that they would prefer to take.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:08 AM



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