NEW YORK — Less than two hours before the 76ers’ Friday night tipoff against the Timberwolves in Minneapolis, assistant coach Dan Burke dipped a cup into a basket of popcorn sitting on a table outside the Target Center visitor’s locker room.
The snack choice was fitting, both for this particular hallway and this particular team. This past weekend served as a celebration, a stretch-run reset, and a source of intrigue for the Sixers, when perennial All-Star James Harden made his much-anticipated debut following the blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets.
Harden’s early results lived up to the hubbub.
He first totaled 27 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds in a 133-102 rout of Minnesota, unleashing the step-back three-pointer, foul-drawing ability, and passing vision that have made him one of this generation’s most brilliant offensive players. Less than 48 hours later, he stuffed the box score with 29 points, 16 assists, 10 rebounds, and five steals in a 125-109 road victory over the Knicks.
Harden’s star turn Friday was the highest-rated Sixers regular-season game televised by NBC Sports Philadelphia since 2001. Sunday’s win at Madison Square Garden was broadcast to the entire country. And Harden’s acquisition makes the Sixers one of the NBA’s most interesting teams to track during the regular season’s final weeks.
Here are some behind-the-scenes snapshots of how Harden’s first weekend as a Sixer unfolded:
At 5:58 p.m. Friday, Harden caught a lob pass and flipped the ball backwards over his shoulder and into the basket to signal the start of his pregame on-court work.
As Harden’s shot attempts moved from the baseline to the left elbow, a man sitting in the second row marveled, “He hasn’t even hit the rim yet.” An arena playlist that transitioned from Blackstreet and Dr. Dre’s “No Diggity” to Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” was surely drowned out by whatever tunes played in Harden’s earbuds.
After a series of off-the-dribble pull-ups while being loosely guarded by assistant Sam Cassell, a trip around the three-point line and a stop at the free-throw stripe, Harden threw down a two-handed dunk and hollered, “One more!” He caught the ball, drilled a three from the left corner and jogged back to the locker room.
“Just a normal game day,” Harden said of how the lead-up to his Sixers debut felt. “Just getting my mind right to try to be the best player on the court.”
Less than an hour later, Harden re-emerged with his teammates. In the layup line, he threw the ball off the glass to himself for a slam and sprinted to the opposite side. As the national anthem concluded, he pointed straight up and then went down the line for high fives.
The Timberwolves’ public-address announcer purposely sped through the Sixers’ starting lineup in numerical order, introducing Harden second and giving the visitors’ fans in the house barely any time to acknowledge the magnitude of the moment.
The home crowd cheered when Harden was switched early onto Timberwolves dazzling second-year wing Anthony Edwards. Yet it was Harden who crossed over Edwards minutes later, resulting in an and-one finish at the rim to ignite his near-triple-double.
Harden made his imprint on the game without forcing it. Second-year guard Tyrese Maxey repeated the word “communication” — particularly in regard to the defensive end of the floor — when describing Harden’s impact. Coach Doc Rivers also praised the ripple effect of Harden’s voice during timeouts.
“Then Joel [Embiid] speaks up. Then everybody speaks up,” Rivers said. “That kind of stuff we’re going to need. We’re going to go through times where it’s not that easy and it’s going to be hard. We’re going to have to be able to talk to each other.”
When Harden dished to Maxey for a wide-open three-pointer with five minutes to play, he threw both arms into the air. The reaction appeared to be part “Are you not entertained?!” and part personal exhale, symbolizing the end of his own saga in Brooklyn, his healed hamstring, and his ability to focus on playing with his new team.
“Extremely happy,” Harden said when asked how happy he was to officially move on. “Extremely happy.”
A wide-eyed Harden stared in disbelief and then chuckled as Embiid guzzled a bottle of water so quickly that the crackling plastic loudly filled the tiny Target Center auxiliary room.
“That’s good,” a suddenly hydrated Embiid said.
The moment at the start of Friday’s postgame news conference illustrated the off-the-court rapport that the Sixers’ new superstar duo is rapidly establishing.
Harden said his first priority is to “make sure [Embiid] continues” his MVP-caliber tear. Embiid flashed a smile and glanced to his right at Harden while describing the newfound space he had to operate with the ball, while Harden lowered his head and shook it as if he did not want to take the compliment. Harden then playfully demonstrated fumbling hands when Embiid noted he did not expect some of Harden’s passes.
“We’re just trying to figure each other out, get to know each other,” Harden said. “This is a relationship, and I’m here to help.”
As Embiid started to leave the room, a Sixers staffer joked, “That was the easiest press conference you’ve ever had.”
“Finally, I don’t have to be asked all the questions,” Embiid said with a grin.
“Harden! I love you!” yelled a teenager wearing a gold Arizona State jersey that he had flipped backwards, so the No. 13 and Harden’s name were on his chest instead of his back. Another young fan a few seats down in the front row of section 106 at Madison Square Garden held up a blue Harden Sixers jersey, waving it like a flag.
A Sunday afternoon road game within easy travel distance meant gaggles of Sixers fans congregated in pockets near the baskets and tunnels, hoping to catch Harden’s eye or ear.
No such luck for the gold jersey wearer or blue jersey waver. But as Harden headed back to the tunnel on the opposite side of the court, he slapped hands with a couple of fans sitting in the front row. One in a blue Maxey jersey raised his arms and literally jumped for joy.
Harden then drew the most fervent reaction of any player from either team introduced as a starter, with a mix of cheers and boos. But other than when Knicks fans grew loud as their team mounted a third-quarter rally, the Sixers fans were the more boisterous group Sunday. An “E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES!” chant began in the first quarter. “Let’s go, Sixers!” rang from the suites late in the fourth.
And cheers erupted when Harden pulled down his 10th rebound in the game’s final minute to complete a triple-double.
“[It] felt like we were in Philly,” Harden said.
Harden sat on top of the scorer’s table during a second-quarter timeout, immersed in a heat-of-the-moment discussion with Cassell while the coach held one sheet of paper.
The Sixers’ ensuing possession, Harden found Maxey for a three-pointer. The possession after that, Harden dropped a bounce pass to Embiid for a jumper.
Rivers said Harden — and fellow trade acquisition Paul Millsap — only knows about three or four of the Sixers’ plays, and very few second actions out of those sets. Yet Harden, who ranks second in the NBA in assists per game (10.3), already appears to have a terrific feel for his new teammates’ strengths.
He is constantly on Matisse Thybulle about cutting, and got the ball to him twice for finishes about midway through the third quarter. He is creating opportunities for Maxey for spot-up jumpers and on fast breaks. And he is working with Embiid in a two-man game the All-Star center calls “unstoppable.”
Late in the second quarter, Harden delivered another slick bounce pass to Embiid under the basket for the and-one finish, then celebrated by rapidly moving his arms along his side in a running motion. Then, with about five minutes to play, Harden sent the ball to Embiid in transition for a monster two-handed slam.
“I’m just out there winging it, honestly,” Harden said, “and just trying to make the best decision as far as my playmaking ability each possession.”
When Tobias Harris buried the Sixers’ final bucket of the afternoon with 30.3 seconds to play, Harden grabbed his jersey, shimmied, and clapped.
He walked into his postgame press conference still wearing his game attire. He said his biggest takeaway from his first weekend as a 76er was tallying two victories, including one in which the Sixers had to tighten up in the fourth quarter. Though he believes his new team still has “a long way to go,” he is also “overly confident in the group that we have.”
When asked what he is anticipating for Wednesday’s home debut (also against the Knicks), Harden said, “It’s going to be turnt in there, and I’m ready for it.”
On his way out the door, a bystander asked Harden to clarify his word choice.
“Turnt,” Harden said. “T-U-R-N-T.”