MINNEAPOLIS — Make no mistake, Friday was James Harden Day. At least that’s the way the 76ers approached it.
At 9:26 a.m., Dave Sholler, the Sixers’ executive vice president of communications, tweeted out a gif of Harden and the words, “Morning! Have a great day today, folks. See you tonight at 8 p.m. ET on @NBCSPhilly!”
A couple of hours later, the team tweeted out an autographed photo of Harden with a quote from him on it. It read: “It’s go time!”
Friday morning, before their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Sixers also had their largest media contingent of the season at a road shootaround.
It was all because Friday was the day Sixers fans have been waiting for since the Feb. 10 trade deadline. The Harden era kicked off Friday night with a 133-102 Sixers win over the Timberwolves at the Target Center. The curtain opener came 15 days after the perennial All-NBA selection was acquired along with Paul Millsap from the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks.
Harden finished with 27 points, a game-high 12 assists, and eight rebounds. He shot 7-for-12 — 5-of-7 from three-point range — while making 8 of 9 foul shots. Not a bad stat line, considering this was his first game since Feb. 2.
“For me, I haven’t been on the court for so long,” said Harden, who was sidelined with a left hamstring strain. “My body feels great personally, and just to be around these guys, who all have the same common goal, coaching staff and just top to bottom, winning.”
Harden said Friday was a normal game day for him.
“I tried to be the best player on the court,” he said.
He definitely was that.
Harden’s first shot attempt, made basket, and three-point play as a Sixer all came 3 minutes, 17 seconds into the game. He drove the lane and scored while being fouled by Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards. Harden made the foul shot to give the Sixers a 10-6 cushion. He missed a three-pointer on the ensuing possession.
He had six points, making 1 of 2 shots, to go with one assist and a rebound before getting more involved in the second quarter. That’s when he scored 12 points on 3-for-4 — including making both three-point attempts — and converting 4 of 5 foul shots. Harden also collected four assists and two rebounds while playing 9:16 of the quarter.
His highlight was a step-back three-pointer while being fouled with 56.3 seconds left in the half. He made the foul shot to give the Sixers a 63-49 cushion.
Harden finished with 10 points in the second quarter before leaving with 4:25 to play.
He ended up with four step-back three-pointers, two of then ending in four-point plays. He scored his first basket while being fouled and made the foul shot three times against the Timberwolves (32-28).
“I lived through them,” Doc Rivers said of coaching against Harden and his step-back threes in the past. “I’ve seen them firsthand. One of the coaches, it might have been Jamie Young said, “Geesh, it’s so much nicer to see it on the other side of the fence. But I thought he picked and chose. We ran a lot of pick-and-roll, two-man stuff, and then when we got the right switch, he went to that.
“We look at that the same way we look at a post up for Joel.”
When Joel Embiid has the ball in the post, Rivers views it as an isolation play. When Harden has the right defender in the right spot, it’s also an isolation play.
“So we like them both,” Rivers said.
Embiid finished with game highs of 34 points and 10 rebounds, while Tyrese Maxey added 28 points
Friday gave an initial glimpse at how the Harden-and-Embiid All-Star pairing will work, and how much more competitive the Sixers are with the 2018 MVP and three-time scoring champion. And it let us see firsthand why the Sixers were so willing to give up a lot for the 32-year-old.
“I’m just excited about everybody just getting on the court,” Embiid said before shootaround, “Trying to figure out the best way to add to all playing together. So we can go on and try to win every single game and eventually get to the Finals.”
The Sixers have 23 regular-season contests remaining. They’re third in the Eastern Conference with a 36-23 record and 2 ½ games behind the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat, who are tied for first..
The Sixers will complete their two-game road trip at the New York Knicks on Sunday at 1 p.m. before facing the Knicks again in Harden’s home debut on Wednesday.
Time isn’t on the Sixers’ side when it comes to incorporating a player of Harden’s caliber into the mix. The Bulls, Heat, fourth-place Milwaukee Bucks, fifth-place Cleveland Cavaliers, and sixth-place Boston Celtics have all had their core pieces intact since at least training camp.
Aware of Harden’s elite skills, Embiid is far from concerned. He has another talented guy to help figure out how to make things mesh. He also thinks he and Harden, two elite scorers, can coexist.
“It’s not going to be hard,” Embiid said. “We are not talking about, you know, non-shooters or guys that are limited offensively. We’re talking about James Harden. You see what he did in Houston when he was scoring the ball and then going to Brooklyn with other high talent offensively. He became a way better playmaker, averaging 10 assists.
“So it’s not going to be hard at all. I think it’s going to help the whole team in that role. So I’m excited.”
» READ MORE: The James Harden trade: As it happened
But the Sixers have to develop consistency. They have six weeks left to split up lineups and figure out the right combinations. The addition of Harden allows the Sixers to have at least two starters on the floor most of the time.
On Friday, the Sixers had a starting lineup of Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Embiid, Maxey, and Harden.
Harden and Harris were subbed out at the 5:03 mark of the first quarter. They were replaced by Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang. Moments later, Danny Green came in to replace Thybulle. Green, Korkmaz, and Niang were paired with starters Embiid and Thybulle.
Then Harden came back in for Maxey with 1:56 left in the quarter. At that time, Paul Millsap subbed in for Embiid. Forty-four seconds later, Harris came back in for Niang. Then Harden went back to the bench for the final 10 seconds of the quarter. He was replaced by Thybulle.
The Sixers opened the second quarter with Harden, Green, Harris, Millsap, and Shake Milton. Rivers kept up a similar rotation pattern until going to an all-bench lineup of Milton, Green, Korkmaz, Millsap, and Niang with his team up 26 points with 2:24 left in the third. The Sixers brought Harris back in for Niang with 54.2 seconds remaining in the quarter.
For the most part, Embiid was paired with Maxey while Harden and Harris were paired together.
Embiid doesn’t think it will take long to figure out rotations, either. He noted Harden is a great player and very smart. That’s a good combination that he expects to mesh well with the players on the roster.
“At the end of the day, it starts at the top,” Embiid said. “We got to want it. I got to want it. He’s got to want it, and the other guys are going to follow. But I think it’s going to be smooth, and we’re just going to get going.”
Friday was the Sixers’ first time seeing what Harden brings in game action.
We’ll learn more about him during next Friday and Saturday’s home-and-away back-to-back against the Cavs and Heat followed by home games against the Bulls (March 7) and Nets (March 10). They’ll have a key road game against the Cavs on March 16. Then a couple of games later, the Sixers will have another defining home back-to-back against the Toronto Raptors (March 20) and Heat (March 21) before embarking on a three-game road trip against the Los Angeles Lakers (March 23), Clippers (March 25), and Phoenix Suns (March 27). After a day off, they’ll host the Bucks.
Nine of their 16 games in March are against teams that were in the top six of their respective conferences going into Friday’s games. Four other games are against squads that would compete in the play-in tournament if the season concluded Thursday.
“I’m actually excited because our schedule is getting extremely tough,” Embiid said. “[March] is going to be extremely tough. So you know we’re really going to be tested. We are going to see where we are at.
“So I’m excited to get going, to play some tough playoff teams, just to try to get better, win or lose.”
Perhaps, but Friday was James Harden Day, a day the Sixers would like to build on.