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The James Harden-Philadelphia lovefest is already underway

James Harden averaged 28 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds in his first two games with the 76ers. (Frank Franklin II/AP)
6 min

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James Harden doesn’t always leave on good terms, but he clearly understands the power of a first impression.

The 10-time all-star guard has found himself in another post-trade honeymoon, making fast friends with Joel Embiid and shining in his first two appearances for the Philadelphia 76ers following a blockbuster deal with the Brooklyn Nets.

When Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012, he launched what would become his first all-star campaign with 37 points and 12 assists in his opener. After successfully forcing his way out of Houston to Brooklyn in January 2021, he posted 34 points, 12 rebounds and 14 assists in his debut.

Predictably, that rosy history has repeated with the 76ers, who welcomed Harden back to the court Friday for his first action in more than three weeks. Showing no ill effects from a hamstring injury that led him to sit out in the days before the trade deadline, Harden finished with 27 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists in a 133-102 blowout of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Then he posted a triple-double — 29 points, 10 rebounds and 16 assists — as Philadelphia bludgeoned the New York Knicks in a 125-109 victory at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

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The victories have set the stage for Harden to receive a rousing introduction when he makes his home debut Wednesday, as the reinvigorated 76ers eye a late-season push for the East’s top seed.

Watching Philadelphia’s star duo hit the ground running, it was easy to forget that Harden had mentally checked out during Brooklyn’s unsightly loss to the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 2, managing just four points on 2-for-11 shooting while committing six turnovers. His reported tension with Kyrie Irving and his snubbing by Kevin Durant in the all-star draft already felt like old news, replaced with pretty pocket passes to Embiid, a never-ending stream of drives to the rim and news conference declarations that it’s time for everyone to move on.

“I feel like I’m one of the best teammates the NBA has seen,” Harden said Friday. “On the court and off the court. Just because the current situation happened, that doesn’t mean I’m a bad teammate. I needed to do what was best for my career and help myself and be happy.”

Embiid enthusiastically agreed and couldn’t seem to care less about Harden’s friction with past co-stars such as Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Durant and Irving. The 27-year-old center and leading MVP candidate appears enamored with his new partner, whose arrival has reoriented Philadelphia’s offense and erased all memories of Ben Simmons.

Concerns that Harden and Embiid might step on each other’s toes have yet to manifest; they plowed through the overmatched Knicks for a combined 66 points and 37 free throw attempts. Embiid has found himself facing fewer double teams, and Harden’s playmaking skills have addressed spacing concerns that have existed in Philadelphia for years.

“Unstoppable,” Embiid said Sunday. “What are you really going to do? He’s a great passer. Obviously I’ve got someone that attracts a lot of attention, too. Do you stay on me or stay on him? If you want to guard both of us with the other guys, you’ve got Matisse [Thybulle] diving to the rim and wide-open shooters. … I can’t imagine what’s going to happen when we all put it together.”

With Harden in the fold, Embiid shouldn’t need to create for himself in the post, settle for bailout shots or risk turnovers by passing through traffic as often as he has in the past. Similarly, Harden should enjoy less attention playing alongside Embiid, who is far more versatile and dynamic than the likes of Howard and Clint Capela.

“I feel very comfortable,” Harden said. “[Embiid] likes to pop, he likes to roll, he likes to mix it in a little bit. As long as we continue that communication … things will be great.”

Although Harden cautioned Sunday that the 76ers have “a long way to go” and that he was “out there winging it” because he hasn’t had time to master his new playbook, the conversation has already started to turn. Rather than working through his fit with Embiid, Harden was focused on better using Tobias Harris, who shot 2-for-9 against the Timberwolves and 3-for-9 against the Knicks. The 29-year-old has seen his efficiency slip this season, but he should be a major beneficiary of Harden’s arrival given his spot-up shooting experience.

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“Tobias had four or five catch-and-shoot opportunities that he passed up and tried to dribble past somebody,” Harden said Sunday. “I’m going to stay in his ear about it. I don’t care if he misses 20 of them — those are shots we need you to take.”

Meanwhile, Tyrese Maxey has settled into the new configuration nicely. When Harden sits, Maxey moves onto the ball more often and works his own two-man game with Embiid. When Harden and Maxey share the court, Coach Doc Rivers has encouraged his second-year guard to run the floor in transition and be prepared to shoot from deep when he’s open.

Harden’s midseason arrival keyed Brooklyn’s top-ranked offense last year, and Philadelphia appears poised for a move up the offensive efficiency charts from 12th as it approaches the playoffs. While it has only been two games against mediocre defenses, the 76ers posted a 124.6 offensive rating in the victories and outscored their opponents by 54 points in Harden’s 74 minutes.

Tougher defensive tests are coming this week thanks to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat. Still, one can’t help but wonder whether Harden’s true signature move is his step-back three-pointer or his ability to inspire amnesia after a breakup.

“I really don’t care at all what people say,” he said. “I know how skilled [I am] and the work I put in to be one of the best basketball players. Nothing was given to me. I wasn’t one of the best basketball players growing up. I had to work every single day to be in the position I am today. There’s nothing somebody can tell me about my game.”

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