LOS ANGELES — Something is still amiss with James Harden.
The 76ers point guard lacks the explosiveness he displayed while blowing past defenders with the Houston Rockets. It’s the result of the left hamstring tightness that sidelined Harden for most of February.
“He’s still not there,” coach Doc Rivers said before Friday’s shootaround at UCLA. “But his miles per hour have increased. He’s ... almost to the level of Houston as far as his miles per hour. He’s reached his top speed he hasn’t reached in two years.
“He’s still a work in progress. But [in] three weeks, we really feel at the time, he’ll be there at 100%.”
That will be around the time the playoffs start. The Sixers headed into Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers with a 45-27 record and in third place in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Sixers acquired Harden on Feb. 10 via trade with the Brooklyn Nets to help deliver an NBA title. But the perennial All-NBA selection has been slowed by his hamstring since forcing a trade from the Houston Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 13, 2021.
He missed 21 of the Nets’ final 24 regular-season games with a right hamstring strain. Harden returned in the opening-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics and played in all five games.
However, he exited Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks after only 43 seconds. Harden returned for Game 5 in a limited role but played 46, 40 and 53 minutes in Games 5, 6, and 7. After the Nets were eliminated, he revealed that he played through a Grade 2 hamstring strain during the final three games of the series.
Before he made his Sixers debut on Feb. 25, Harden had been sidelined since scoring four points as a member of the Nets on Feb. 2.
The Sixers then rested him as part of their hamstring recovery program against the Miami Heat on March 5 and March 21. Both games were the tail ends of back-to-backs.
The Sixers think Harden is in good hands with Simon Rice, the team’s vice president of athletic care.
“We’re lucky. Simon wrote three or four books on hamstring injuries,” Rivers said. “It’s just luck that he’s on our staff. James has bought into him 100%.
“It’s funny that the big thing with James, once he had those injuries, you could tell he didn’t want to play at top speed, because that’s how you hurt it. Simon’s philosophy is the exact opposite, to get him playing at that speed to condition the hamstring to be able to play at that speed.”
Harden ran the arena steps following a recent home game and he also does full-out sprints at practice. Rivers said that takes a lot out of Harden and probably hurts him before the game.
“But we are not worried about that game as much as we’re worried about the playoffs,” Rivers said.
Harden fell hard to the court in the second half of Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers. After the game, Harden said his quadriceps felt “a little sore.” But he added that the injury was “nothing too serious.” And Rivers echoed that, saying that Harden’s quad was fine.
Friday night’s game was a homecoming for Rivers, backup center DeAndre Jordan, and assistant coach Sam Cassell.
Rivers compiled a 356-208 record with the top winning percentage (.631) in franchise history during his seven seasons with the Clippers before being fired on Sept. 28, 2020.
Cassell was an assistant on Rivers’ staff, and Jordan spent his first 10 seasons with the Clippers before being traded to the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 31, 2019.
“This is home,” Jordan said of returning to Los Angeles to face the Clippers. “I was in L.A. as a kid at 19, and I played for the Clippers for 10 years. So I was telling him, I’m always going to have a special relationship with the Clippers and it’s always going to be a family kind of organization for me. Just everything that we went through, I went through here, the ups and downs, and the extremely positive.
“So I love it. I love coming back, playing against the guys, talking [trash], seeing all old friends and coaches and organization staff members.”