James Harden made his highly anticipated return to the Philadelphia 76ers active lineup on Monday night against the team he spent the bulk of his career with -- the Houston Rockets. Harden last played in a game for Philly on Nov. 2, against the Washington Wizards. He injured his foot during that contest and has been sidelined with a right foot tendon strain since. The Sixers played 14 games in Harden's absence and went 8-6 during that span.
Harden may have been out for a month, but he was immediately tasked with playing some major minutes. Sixers coach Doc Rivers said that Harden would be on a minutes restriction before the game against Houston, but an additional 10 minutes were needed to determine a victor. By the time the second overtime ended, Harden had logged 38 minutes of action. In that time, he tallied 21 points, seven assists, and four rebounds, but his return and resulting production weren't enough to lift Philadelphia to a win.
Powered by the young duo of Jalen Green (27 points. seven assists, and four rebounds) and Kevin Porter Jr. (24 points, six rebounds, and three assists), the young Rockets outlasted the Sixers and pulled out a 132-123 victory. Jabari Smith Jr. also added 16 points and 11 assists for Houston.
The win was the seventh of the season for the Rockets, while the Sixers fell to .500 (12-12) with the loss. Joel Embiid had another monster night for Philadelphia with 39 points and seven rebounds, but he fouled out near the end of the first overtime and thus was unavailable for the final five minutes of the game.
For the Rockets, the win was probably their best of the season so far. They stood toe-to-toe with a talented team and came out on top. It's the type of game that a young, developing team can build upon. Their young core players all contributed in a meaningful way and gained some valuable experience in the process.
The game was on the other side of the spectrum for the Sixers, as it was arguably their worst loss of the season. Sure, they were still without rising star Tyrese Maxey, but these are the games that legitimate contending teams win, and right now, the Sixers don't look like one of those. They turned the ball over 20 times against Houston, and many of them were the result of sloppy, careless play. They also gave up 16 offensive rebounds and 52 paint points. They clearly have a long way to go if they hope to truly contend in the Eastern Conference.
As expected, Harden showed some serious signs of rust in his first game action since early November. He shot just 4-for-19 from the floor, including 0-for-8 on two-point attempts. He also had seven costly turnovers. The offense looked clunky at times with him on the floor, as the team had to readjust to his isolation-heavy style of play on the offensive end. In his absence, the team relied more heavily on ball and player movement, so a slight readjustment period is understandable.
Harden also seemed a little too eager to play the hero in front of his former fans, which led to a couple of ill-advised shot attempts down the stretch, most notably the deep triple he forced with seven seconds remaining in regulation with the game tied at 108.
The shot was blocked by Porter Jr., but it shouldn't have even been attempted in the first place. With the game hanging in the balance, there's no reason to settle for a contested three, especially with the way that Embiid was dominating Houston's defense. If you're not going to get the ball to Embiid in that situation, at least drive toward the basket, where the chance to draw a foul is elevated. You only need a bucket, not a three.
Plus, the shot left time on the clock for Houston to get off an attempt of their own. They didn't convert, but the clock management left a lot to be desired there. If the Sixers had executed better on that possession, perhaps the game never would have even gone into overtime.
If someone has never watched basketball before, this probably isn't the game you'd want to show them, as the two teams combined for 40 turnovers and 61 fouls. Nonetheless, the contest provided a reason for optimism for both teams. With Houston, you could see how they have some pieces in place to grow into a contender in the West, while Harden's return provides hope for Philadelphia, even though his first game back left a lot to be desired.