After going up 3-0 in their first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, the Philadelphia 76ers have lost two straight and suddenly find themselves in a pretty nerve-wracking position. Joel Embiid has a torn thumb ligament that will require surgery in the offseason. Game 6 is at Toronto. If it gets back to Philadelphia for Game 7, which feels like a pretty decent bet, the Sixers will be playing under the added pressure of trying to avoid becoming the first team in NBA history to lose a playoff series after leading 3-0.
This could get very ugly, very quickly.
You can already sense some unraveling in Embiid's postgame comments after Philly's 103-88 loss on Monday, when the Sixers' MVP candidate took a pretty clear shot at James Harden, who continues to look like a significantly diminished version of his former self as he's become an increasingly hesitant shooter/scorer during his time with the Sixers and over the course of this series.
Embiid on Harden only taking 11 shots: "I've been saying all season since he got here, he needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself. That's not really my job, that's probably on coach to talk to him and tell him to take more shots"— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) April 26, 2022
Full quote: pic.twitter.com/vc5WIpROLO
"That's not really my job" and "that's probably on coach to talk to him" aren't exactly subtle remarks. It isn't just that Harden is only averaging 18 points on 37-percent shooting in this series, including 31 percent from 3 over the past four games, it's that, again, he isn't being aggressive to score, in large part because he can't consistently beat defenders off the dribble. Even when he does get some semblance of a downhill advantage, he has zero lift at the rim and is more looking to pass, which, to be fair, he can still do at an elite level.
On Monday, as was pointed out in the questioning to Embiid, Harden only took 11 shots. Through three quarters, he had nine points on eight shots before knocking in a couple 3s in the fourth quarter to end up with 15. Harden is still managing to get a lot of open shots for his teammates, but I can assure you, 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting in what could've been a closeout game is not the "star" that Daryl Morey thought he was getting when he finally let loose of Ben Simmons.
The signs were there in Brooklyn, but the Nets had no spacing and perhaps Morey let himself believe that Harden still wasn't fully healthy. Maybe he's still not. Maybe this is the worst hamstring injury in human history. But the evidence is starting to pile up that Harden simply cannot be depended upon to be a superstar, or even an All-Star, every night moving forward.
These days, Harden's scoring is largely dependent on whether his step-back 3s are going, and for all his volume, he's never been an elite marksmen in terms of percentage. He made just 32 percent of his 3s with the Sixers this season, and again, after a 4 for 7 night in Game 1, he's gone 7 for his past 22 from deep in this series.
Maybe the Sixers and Harden will figure out these recent struggles behind them and pull out a road victory in Game 6, but if you've been watching this series at all, you know that's far from anything that even resembles a halfway safe bet. Chance are pretty darn good that this series is headed for a Game 7, and hoo boy, is that going to be a pressure cooker.
If the Sixers blow this series, will they re-sign Harden to a max contract this summer? Could they possibly justify that, even knowing they would have given up Simmons and Seth Curry for basically nothing if they let Harden walk? Will Daryl Morey or Doc Rivers still even have a job? I hate to go down this road, but it's pretty hard to avoid at this point.