NEW YORK — Asked what he thinks about his two-man game with new 76ers teammate James Harden, Joel Embiid went straight for the letter U.
“Unstoppable,” he said following Sunday’s 125-109 victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
“Whatever we want to do,” Embiid continued. “He’s a great passer. Obviously, I got someone you got to attract a lot of attention to. So you got to make a decision. Do you stay on me or do you stay on him?”
And if you guard both of them, teammates Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, and Matisse Thybulle will get plenty of opportunities.
As the Knicks (25-36) learned, defending the Embiid-Harden-led Sixers is a tough task.
The Sixers’ 125 points come after they scored 133 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday in Harden’s Sixers debut after being acquired in a trade from the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 10.
On Sunday, the dominant duo had memorable performances.
Harden finished with 29 points, a season-high 16 assists, 10 rebounds, and a career-high tying five steals to post his first triple-double since Jan. 25 and 10th of the season. This comes after he had 27 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds in his double-double in Minnesota.
As a result, he became the first player in NBA history to have at least 25 points and 12 assists in his first two games with a new team.
Meanwhile, Embiid finished with game highs of 37 points and four blocks to go with nine rebounds and three assists. He made an NBA season-high 23 foul shots in a career-high 27 attempts.
His 27 attempts are the most in a league game since Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis had that many against the Memphis Grizzlies on Oct. 29. 2019.
Following the game, Maxey asked Embiid if he knew how many free throws he shot today.
The league MVP frontrunner responded: “That’s what happens when you get fouled all the freaking time.”
Embiid wasn’t lying.
He fouled out New York starting center Mitchell Robinson and his reserve Jericho Sims. Former Sixer Nerlens Noel, who’s dealing with plantar fasciitis, missed his seventh straight game. But he, too, probably would have had a tough time stopping Embiid, the league’s scoring leader at 29.8 points.
Just like on Friday night, the two-man game with Harden was a tough defensive assignment.
“That’s our job every single night, to put pressure on the rim,” Harden said. “That creates opportunities for ourselves and our teammates. That pressure night in and night out consistently is going to be tough for teams to cover.”
Maxey has been the biggest beneficiary.
The second-year guard is no longer the team’s primary ball handler because of the addition of Harden. He assumes that role when the perennial All-NBA selection is off the court. But for the most part, Maxey has been getting easy buckets while playing alongside the duo.
He had 21 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and two steals two days after finishing with 28 points against the Timberwolves.
As a team, the Sixers made 39 of 44 foul shots Sunday. The 39 makes were an NBA season high.
Harris, however, had his second consecutive poor-shooting performance. The standout power forward missed his first six shots before making three late in the fourth-quarter. He finished with 12 points -- 10 in the fourth quarter -- on 3-for-9 shooting.
Solid foul shooting
Stellar foul shooting contributed to the win.
In addition to Embiid’s performance at the foul line, Harden went 10-for-10, Harris was 4-for-4 and Maxey made 2 of 3 free throws. The Sixers were clutch in the fourth quarter, making all 12 of their free throws in what was a tight game.
Embiid made six, Harden had four, and Harris made two. The Sixers had a 108-107 lead after Embiid made his third and fourth free throws of the quarter with 6 minutes, 16 seconds left.
After scoring on a dunk 33 seconds later, Embiid made his fifth and sixth freebies at the 4:55 mark to make it a 112-105 game.
Harden, the passing wizard
Harden, once again, was a passing wizard while setting teammates up for great scoring opportunities. Whether it was dishing to Embiid in the pick-and-roll or a lob to Thybulle, Harden’s passes were on-point and led to easy baskets. And it was that way from the start.
The point guard had a hand in the Sixers’ first four baskets.
He scored a layup on an assist from Harris to get the Sixers a 7-6 lead 2:06 in. Then, he assisted on consecutive dunks by Embiid before doing the same for Thybulle.
The first non-Harden contributed basket came on Maxey’s transition basket to give the Sixers a 15-13 advantage with 7:52 left in the quarter.
Harden didn’t look like someone who’s only had one practice with teammates. The Sixers are only running three or four plays due to Harden and Paul Millsap, who was also acquired in the Nets trade, being unfamiliar with the playbook.
But he’s comfortable running the team, especially with Embiid.
“We are very comfortable,” Harden said. “He likes to pop. He likes to roll and mix it in a little bit. So we need to keep the communication going and things will be great. I know a couple of plays, I’m just out there winging it honestly. Just trying to make the best decision in terms of playmaking ability.”
Harris was the forgotten one in Friday night’s victory in Minnesota.
He finished with six points on 2-for-9 shooting while the other starters -- Embiid (34 points), Maxey (28), Harden (27), and Thybulle (11) scored in double digits.
Coach Doc Rivers was asked before Sunday’s game if he was going to make a conscious effort to get Harris involved early.
“He had great shots,” Rivers said. “Listen, we are in the win business. We don’t try to keep everybody happy, because if that’s true we’d be in the loss business.
“Tobias is going to get great shots. That’s why he was happy after the game. He was like, man, gosh, I have to take advantage of all these opportunities I got. He felt like he didn’t . But, you know, over the long haul he will.”
Harris missed his first shot on Sunday, a wide-open three-pointer, with 6:24 left in the first quarter. He went on to miss his second attempt, which was a wide-open three-pointer before missing a 13-foot shot a couple of minutes later.
On several occasions, he passed up open opportunities created by Harden passes, but put the ball on the floor instead. He appeared to be pressing early.
Things didn’t get any better for him after intermission.
Harris missed a three-pointer 22 seconds into the third quarter. He scored his first two points on a pair of foul shots at the 10:30 mark of the quarter. But 26 seconds later, Harris had a dunk blocked by guard Alec Burks. Harris thought he was fouled and complained to the ref while running back on defense. He continued yapping during a break in action and received a technical foul.
Harris went on to miss his next shot. His two foul shots with 8:52 left, however, gave the Sixers a 102-100 lead.
His first basket was huge. His corner three-pointer with 4:02 remaining gave the Sixers a 115-107 cushion.