The 76ers faced the perennial All-Star they tried to acquire to form a dominant tandem with Joel Embiid.
James Harden gave them a glimpse of what they could have had in a game that lost a lot of anticipated luster. His 26-point, 10-assist, 8-rebound effort wasn’t nearly enough to stop the Sixers from posting a 124-108 victory Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid, on the other hand, finished with 33 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
But another storyline had to do with who wasn’t playing for the Nets (14-11).
Kevin Durant missed the game because of the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. The 2014 league MVP is sidelined until Friday because of contact tracing for COVID. Someone he interacted with on Friday afternoon had tested positive. Durant tested negative, but still has to quarantine.
Nets All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving also missed the game with a right index finger sprain. He’s listed as day-to-day.
So Brooklyn’s vaunted Big Three was minus two on this night. Irving (personal reasons) and Durant (contact tracing period) also missed the Nets’ 122-109 victory over the Sixers in Brooklyn on Jan. 7.
On Saturday, Philly took full advantage of their absences and the Nets’ shabby defense. The Sixers scored 62 points in the paint in a game that resembled a layup line, leading at one point by 19.
Tobias Harris had another solid performance, finishing with 21 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists. Ben Simmons had 16 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, and three steals. Seth Curry had 11 points after failing to score in his previous two games. Danny Green (11 points) and reserves Shake Milton (15) and Furkan Korkmaz (13) were the Sixers’ other double-digit scorers.
The Sixers held a 59-56 halftime lead, then were able to break the game open in the third quarter. After trailing, 73-70, Philly went on a 23-6 run to take a commanding 93-79 lead with 2 minutes, 10 seconds left in the quarter.
But it’s hard to put a lot of stock into this victory. They were supposed to win this game going away.
The Sixers have the Eastern Conference’s best record at 17-7. Yet, they’ve only defeated three teams with a winning record.
After acquiring Harden, the Nets were predicted to represent the conference in NBA Finals. So this was supposed to serve a barometer for the Sixers.
The Nets being undermanned kind of prolonged the gauging of just how good the Sixers actually are.
“We had enough drama of our own with guys in and out with COVID and guys getting over it,” Doc Rivers said before the game. “So I would say I don’t have a gauge yet. I like our team. I really like our team. But I don’t exactly know who we are yet.
“One, it’s early in the season. Two is because of all this [pandemic and protocols] clutter. You want a clutter-free environment as much as you can, at least as a coach — that’s what I’m trying to create. You are not creating a clutter-free environment right now. You are just not. So you have to deal with it.”
In addition to Irving, Brooklyn was without Spencer Dinwiddie (partially torn right knee ACL) and Nicholas Claxton (right knee tendinopathy).
For the Sixers, Simmons (left calf tightness), Seth Curry (illness) and Embiid (right knee hyperextension) all played despite being on the injury report. Mike Scott (right knee swelling) and Terrance Ferguson (protocols) were sidelined.
Ferguson doesn’t have COVID. He went home due to a death in his family.
“When you go home, they put you in protocol when you come back,” Rivers said.
On the night, Harden was one of the Nets’ few bright spots.
Instead of competing against him, Sixers president and former Houston general manager Daryl Morey pushed hard to reunite with Harden.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta did not want to make a deal with the Sixers due to Morey leaving Houston to become the Sixers’ president of basketball operations, as reported. And if he made a deal, Fertitta was only going to make it for Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey and two draft picks, according to sources. However, a source close to the Sixers denied that Maxey was part of the deal.
Another league source said the Rockets never called the Sixers back for a counteroffer before making the four-team blockbuster deal that sent Harden to Brooklyn.
But the Sixers thought they had a deal for Harden done, according to sources.
“I look forward to playing everyone, especially Brooklyn now,” Simmons said of being asked about facing Harden following the trade talks. “They have such great offensive gifted players. So I love that challenge.
“Obviously, they are missing KD and Kyrie, but still a good team. But I want to play the best players in the league every night. So, you know, I love the challenge.”