PHILADELPHIA -- The honeymoon phase between James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers is still going strong. After playing his first two games for the franchise on the road, Harden made his home debut against the New York Knicks on Wednesday night, and the good vibes surrounding the Sixers continued.
Harden was met with thunderous roars of applause upon his introduction, and that energy carried over the course of the contest. Every basket that Harden converted was treated like a buzzer-beater by the fans in Philly, while the former MVP was clearly ready to reciprocate the energy and put on a show for his new, boisterous supporters. As he has since he put on a Sixers uniform -- and virtually his entire career -- Harden scored the ball at a high rate, and he put his teammates in a position to do the same.
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In his 35 minutes of action, Harden tallied 26 points (on 8 of 13 shooting from the field), nine rebounds, and nine assists, and he helped the Sixers pull out their second straight win over the Knicks, 123-108. Joel Embiid had another MVP-caliber performance and added 27 points and 12 rebounds for the Sixers, while Tyrese Maxey had his third straight 20-point game, scoring 25 points to go along with four rebounds and three assists. Both of those guys have excelled playing alongside Harden early on, which isn't super surprising, as Harden's sheer presence out on the floor has opened things up for all of his new teammates.
In the three games he has played with the Sixers so far, Harden has amassed these totals:
- 82 points
- 37 assists
- 27 rebounds
In the process, Harden became the first player in the NBA to average 25 points and 10 assists in his first three games with a franchise since Allen Iverson -- a guy who Sixers fans are quite familiar with -- did so with the Denver Nuggets in 2006. Ironically enough, Iverson posted a message of support for Harden hours before tipoff on Wednesday night.
Though he's well known as an all-time elite offensive talent, Harden hasn't garnered the same reputation when it comes to defense. But, while his level of engagement on the defensive end of the floor has been questioned in the past, he has put forth a noticeable effort on that end since he started suiting up for the Sixers. The charge he drew on R.J. Barrett in the second quarter is a good example of the effort he has put in on that end. Barrett was on the break, and Harden hustled to get in front of him, get in position and take the contact:
Obviously, this type of exertion needs to be maintained, but if Harden's early effort is indicative of his level of commitment at this point in his career, then that's a great sign for the Sixers. In addition to his defensive dedication, what has been especially impressive about Harden's early games with the Sixers is how smoothly everything seems to be coming together.
Harden and Embiid were ideal complements for each other on paper, but there's often a learning curve when two players of their caliber link up for the first time. That hasn't been the case here, as Embiid and Harden have immediately found a solid rhythm playing off of each other. They haven't stepped on each others' toes, but rather have just made life easier for each other. Embiid hasn't had to shoulder as much of the offensive load as he has in the past, and neither has Harden.
Harden isn't forcing things either. He's shot well over 50 percent from the field in all three games, and he has been extremely proactive when it comes to moving the ball. He also has a knack for knowing when the Sixers need him to be aggressive and look for his own offense, and he has delivered in such situations.
After the game on Monday night, the newest Sixer discussed what it was like to play in Philadelphia as a member of the team, rather than as an opponent. "It was great," he said. "The excitement from the beginning of the game. I felt the energy, I felt the love.
"So I wanted to just come out there and show my love back. I just wanted to play well on both ends of the ball and ultimately get the win. We started off a little slow especially in the first half for whatever reason, but second half we picked it up. We were more aggressive on both ends of the ball and we played our brand of basketball."
While Harden isn't accustomed to the Philly faithful having his back, Embiid is, and the big man left the evening impressed with the atmosphere that the fans generated to welcome Harden to his new basketball home.
"It felt like a playoff atmosphere," Embiid said. "I've given a lot of credit to Philly fans over the years and they always come through. Win or lose, they show up to support, whether it's cheering for us or booing us. That's what you want. You want fans to be involved, you want fans to know everything about their basketball team and that's what we have in Philly."
Three games is far too small of a sample size to jump to any sweeping conclusions about how good the Sixers truly are (or who won the trade between them and the Nets). We'll learn much more about the team's true mettle in the coming weeks. For now though, all we can do is react to what we've seen, and the early returns with Harden in the lineup have been as promising as anyone in the Sixers organization could have hoped for.