Preparation and film study are limited during the NBA season as one game finishes and the next comes tumbling right behind. 76ers coach Brett Brown had no sooner gotten past the disappointment of Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma City before the challenge of dealing with James Harden and the Houston Rockets filled his windshield.
You’ve got 48 hours to find a way to limit a player no one in the NBA can seem to limit. He’s not that fast. He’s not that big. He’s just a guy out there operating with the help a few pick-and-rolls now and then.
He’s also a guy averaging a league-leading 35.7 points per game, against every conceivable defensive strategy.
Brown and the Sixers closed the curtains around the court entrances three hours before Monday night’s game and walked through all the defensive strategies the coach wanted to try. With Jimmy Butler out with a sprained wrist, Brown had chosen newcomer Corey Brewer to take his place in the starting lineup and, by the way, draw primary defensive coverage of Harden.
“It reminded me of my previous Sixers days. Tim Frazier would come in and you shake his hand and say, ‘Nice to meet you. You’re the starting point guard,’” Brown said. “It’s, ‘Welcome to the team. You’ve got James Harden tonight.’”
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a roster to check Harden, or make the attempt. Brown and the Sixers threw a lot of different bodies at the Houston star. Wilson Chandler got his chance. Ben Simmons got his. Furkan Korkmaz, T.J. McConnell. Why not?
“How you guard James keeps every coach up late at night,” Brown said. “Not many have been able to figure it out.”
Fortunately for the Sixers, the Rockets had their own issues in what turned out to be an easy 121-93 win for the home team despite 37 points for Harden. Most of that was the result of dealing with center Joel Embiid, who presents his own problems for the opposition. Embiid didn’t match Harden, but he kept pace, finishing with 32 points, 14 rebounds and a certain undefinable energy that he lends to every teammate on the floor.
It wasn’t until shortly before game time that the team announced Embiid would be playing. He has been battling a back issue and is probably due to take a game off, but if there was an organizational desire that it be against the Rockets, Embiid didn’t go for it.
“You think, ‘There’s a land mine coming. We’ve played five games in nine days, and two overtimes in that,’” Brown said. “There’s a thoughtful, responsible decision we can deliver to Joel on, ‘Maybe you sit out tonight.’ But he’s got to be part of it, and that’s not been real often.”
Getting Embiid to April as a healthy player is the goal and 33 minutes a night on a balky back isn’t the formula, but Monday wasn’t going to be a rest day. If a player some consider the best player in the league is coming into your gym, guys like Embiid feel an obligation to contest that perception. And to defend his turf.
“Look at what happens to us when we don’t have him,” Brown said after the game. “I’m as proud of his leadership as much as I appreciate him guts-ing some things out.”
Embiid and Harden got into a little, double-technical push and shove after Embiid fouled him and then stood over Harden just for emphasis. Just before the halftime whistle, Embiid flew down the court after Harden and delivered a massive block on what would have been an easy layup. Harden hit the deck hard, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni got a technical and nobody was worried that much about Embiid’s back at that moment.
It just got worse for Houston in the second half. Aside from Harden, the Rockets suffered through an off shooting night, even on good looks at the basket. They were missing usual starter Clint Capela because of a thumb injury, and Eric Gordon, formerly a consistent three-point threat, appears to have lost something after 10 years in the league.
But all of that could be offset from the Sixers’ vantage by the absence of Butler. No, the fact is that the Sixers were that much better. After Harden went to the bench for the final time early in the fourth quarter with the Sixers leading by 30 points, Embiid was taken from the game as well.