HOUSTON - If the 76ers couldn't stop Tim Hardaway Jr., how will they have any chance against James Harden?
That's the question many Sixers fans are asking after Atlanta Hawks reserve guard torched the Sixers for five three-pointers and a game-high 20 points in a 117-96 victory. Now Brett Brown's squad is tasked with containing Harden and a Houston Rockets squad eager to bounce back from a loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday.
And the fact that Harden will have the ball in his hands for much of Monday's matchup at the Toyota Center will make the Sixers' task tougher. He moved to point guard from shooting guard in the offseason and is off to an incredible start.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder is averaging 30 points and a league-leading 13 assists per game. He had 17 assists in the Rockets' season-opening setback to the Los Angeles Lakers. Harden racked up 15 assists in four of the last six games. He had 12 and 13 assists in the other games during that stretch.
"I think he's embraced that [point guard] responsibility," Brown said. "He's embraced that role."
In the past, the four-time all-star has been dangerous off the ball. The Rockets (5-4) would give it to him in the fourth quarter to create plays.
"But [now] right from jump street, you have him as the ballcarrier, playing downhill," Brown said. "He's a hard guard, now even more difficult."
That's a bad sign for a Sixers squad that has had trouble defending him. Harden averaged 39.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 6.5 turnovers in last season's two series meetings. So their best strategy might involve forcing him to make bad decisions.
But even if that happens, Harden is still a matchup problem for the Sixers small point guards, Sergio Rodriguez and T.J. McConnell. So the team will probably have to assign different people on him. And if the Sixers do that, Harden will look for mismatches and find teammates.
"They play for him," Rodriguez said. "He's passing the ball unbelievable. We will try to limit him, but it's hard to stop him. We will try to limit him as much as we can."
However, Rodriguez stressed that the Sixers aren't giving up. They're in Houston to fight and hopefully leave with their second win. That would definitely be a rare victory for the franchise.
The Sixers (1-8) have lost 19 consecutive road games dating back to last season since beating the Orlando Magic, 96-87, at the Amway Center on Jan. 20.
Monday's game will match the Sixers against their former associate head coach Mike D'Antoni. He was hired by Jerry Colangelo, the Sixers' former chairman of basketball operations, to work under Brown in December.
The Rockets hired D'Antoni as their head coach in May.
"It's going to be good to see him," reserve center Jahlil Okafor said. "I haven't seen him in a while. He's somebody I really enjoy being around."