The Sixers continue to counter the less-than-rosy reputation of James Harden, who was acquired in a blockbuster trade after he forced his way out of Houston and Brooklyn in the span of a little more than a year.
Starting wing Matisse Thybulle said after Wednesday’s shootaround that Harden has “inspired a lot of people … just [with] the energy, the talk” since joining the Sixers less than three weeks ago. That praise came five days after Harden called himself “one of the best teammates that the NBA’s seen, on the court and off the court” following his Sixers debut at Minnesota.
“The camaraderie has grown just from his presence alone, just because of the amount of passion he plays with,” Thybulle said of Harden. “… I’m sure he’s aware of the magnitude, the effect that he has in that category for everyone else.
“When you have one of your best players be one of your most passionate, vocal, outspoken leaders, that’s all you can ever wish for in a leader. And it trickles down to everybody.”
That approach has carried over to the court, where Thybulle said he has most felt Harden’s impact in the Sixers’ uptick in pace.
In their first two games with Harden, a 133-102 win at Minnesota and a 125-109 victory at New York, the Sixers ranked seventh in the NBA in that category with 103.3 possessions per game. That’s a sharp increase from their season average of 96.5 possessions per game, which ranked 27th in the league entering Wednesday.
Additionally, their 20.5 fast-break points in those two games ranked second in the league during that span (compared to their 12.7 per game on the season, which ranked 13th), their offensive efficiency of 124.6 points per 100 possessions ranked third (compared to their 111.5 points per 100 possessions on the season, which ranked 11th) and their 29 assists per game ranked third (compared to 23.2 per game on the season, which ranked 23rd).
“The speed in which the ball flies around in the half court has changed, too,” Thybulle said. “I think it’s turned everyone into much more dynamic threats on offense, across the board. Even Joel [Embiid’s] passing has changed, and his rolling is like we’ve never seen before.
“It’s a small sample size, but I think it gives a good feel for what we’re capable of and where we can continue to obviously get better.”
Harden’s acclimation process continues
Coach Doc Rivers described the Sixers’ Tuesday practice as “boring” and “monotonous.”
They spent the bulk of the session breaking down all the secondary actions out of the three or four plays Harden already knows. That’s not typically how teams are utilizing their time with about 20 games remaining in a tight playoff push. But it’s one of the next steps in Harden’s acclimation process, after acknowledging he was “just out there winging it, honestly” during his first two games.
“Right now, you take us out of our first option [and], literally, guys don’t know what to go to,” Rivers said. “So we went all the way through each option of each play, explained everything we’re looking for, where we’re trying to get the ball.
“We spent a ton of time on where to cut, where to space, where to be. That’s slow [and] boring, but it’s stuff you have to do.”
Health on Sixers’ side
No Sixers were listed on the injury report for Wednesday’s game against the Knicks, other than rookies Jaden Springer and Charles Bassey and two-way players Myles Powell and Charlie Brown Jr. being with the G League’s Delaware Blue Coats.
It’s a luxury during a season that has often been disrupted by injuries and players in COVID-19 health and safety protocols — particularly while infusing Harden.
“You’re gonna have some [injuries at some point],” Rivers said. “You just obviously don’t want any bad ones. But guys are gonna miss games. I’m sure they are.”
Simmons unlikely to play March 10
It’s looking less and less likely that Ben Simmons will play in the much-anticipated final regular-season matchup between the Sixers and the Nets on March 10 at the Wells Fargo Center.
ESPN reported Wednesday that Simmons, who is nursing lower back soreness, has not yet participated in full team workouts and that the Nets would not put him in a game situation until he had gone through a week’s worth of such activities. Simmons has not played at all this season after sitting out his time on the Sixers’ following a trade demand.
Nets star Kevin Durant, meanwhile, is on track to return for Thursday’s game against Miami after missing more than six weeks with a knee injury.