MIAMI — James Harden missed Saturday’s game against the Miami Heat with left hamstring injury recovery, per the team.
The Sixers say this is part of Harden’s injury management program after missing his final four games with the Brooklyn Nets before being traded to the Sixers on Feb. 10 and his first four games with the Sixers leading into the All-Star break. The Sixers’ game against the Heat falls on the second night of a back-to-back after Friday’s home win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It’s nothing, really,” Rivers said. “He’s played a lot of games. He’s been out [with the injury]. That’s about it. There’s nothing to read into it.”
Without Harden, Tyrese Maxey slid back to starting point guard, while Furkan Korkmaz moved into the first unit. Korkmaz did not play in the second half of Friday’s win against Cleveland.
There are no other Sixers listed on the injury report besides two-way player Charlie Brown Jr. and rookies Myles Powell and Jaden Springer, who are all currently with the G League’s Delaware Blue Coats.
Heat star point guard Kyle Lowry also missed Saturday’s game for personal reasons. All-Star Jimmy Butler (left big toe irritation) and P.J. Tucker (left knee pain), who were listed as questionable heading into the game, both started.
Harden has been terrific with the Sixers, averaging 26.8 points on 59.2% shooting, while averaging 12 assists and 7.5 rebounds in four games.
Maxey’s shooting surge
Maxey credits an ice storm with helping his shooting percentages surge since the All-Star break.
The uncharacteristic weather that kept him inside his family’s home near Dallas, along with a nudge from Sixers head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson, forced Maxey to rest the days between the Rising Stars tournament at All-Star Weekend and when he rejoined his team last week in Minneapolis.
“I didn’t touch a ball for that entire period of time,” Maxey said after Friday’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. " … I just feel way, way better. [I] feel rejuvenated.”
He’s playing like it. Maxey entered Saturday’s game against Miami making 14 of his 20 three-point attempts and 64.9% of his field goals in his last four games — which coincides with when Harden started playing for the Sixers. Maxey scored at least 20 points in all four games to form a dangerous offensive trio with Harden and MVP contender Joel Embiid.
Maxey, who has become known for a tireless work ethic, has still been learning how and when to pull back at times. He said Johnson “has been on him all year” about weaving in rest while receiving a sharp uptick in minutes over a full 82-game schedule during this breakout second season. He entered Saturday averaging 35.6 minutes per game (up from 15.3 minutes in 61 games as a rookie), with 17.6 points, 4.5 assists and 3.6 rebounds per contest.
Maxey has played with a relentless, downhill style all season. But he started hitting threes at a higher clip — and volume — in the weeks leading up to the Harden trade. Now, he has become reliable on catch-and-shoot attempts and off the dribble. He went 5-of-6 against the Cavaliers, including four in the second half that helped the Sixers surge ahead after falling behind by 21 points in the first quarter.
“Just trying to work on it every single day,” Maxey said. “I know a lot more opportunities will come, especially playing with James and Joel and Tobias [Harris], because they draw so much attention.
“I feel like, to be able to stay on the court, to be able to help there as much as possible, I have to make catch-and-shoot threes.”
The Harden-Niang connection
Rivers immediately believed Harden and stretch-forward Georges Niang could quickly morph into an effective tandem, because Niang is unafraid to let it fly from deep.
Niang felt Harden’s influence even before Harden took the floor with the Sixers, when he encouraged Niang to take 10 three-pointers in a 5-for-10 performance at the Milwaukee Bucks right before the All-Star break. Then, during Friday’s win against Cleveland, Harden assisted on three Niang buckets during a crucial three-minute stretch at the end of the third and start of the fourth quarters.
Niang hit a go-ahead floater and three-pointer on consecutive possessions, which extended the Sixers’ advantage to 97-93 with less than two minutes to play in the third. Niang then buried another shot from beyond the arc to put the Sixers up, 100-99, with 11:35 remaining in the game. That capped a 17-point outing for Niang on 5-of-8 from long range.
“He separates, and that’s what we’re trying to get our other guys to do,” Rivers said of Niang. “A lot of our guys set picks and just turn. Georges sets picks and runs away [to the three-point arc]. Georges is no dummy. He knows, ‘If I set a pick on Tobias, there’s a good chance I’m getting a shot.’
“I mean, Georges wasn’t born yesterday. He knows exactly what he’s doing. The good thing is James is getting it to him.”
Added Niang: “[Harden] does a great job of making everybody look at him, and then they forget about me. It’s been working. We should do that a lot.”
Late-game execution needs improvement
Harden said he has been “winging it” since beginning to play for the Sixers about a week ago. And in recent practices and shootarounds, Rivers said his team has been sharpening the collection of three or four sets Harden knows rather than rapidly expanding the playbook.
Yet Rivers said the down-to-the-wire nature of Friday’s win over Cleveland exposed a weakness.
“We don’t have enough [crunch-time plays] in,” Rivers said. “You felt that. That’s where, from a coaching standpoint … [Cleveland] can call 14 plays from the bench and we’re limited. So me and [assistant] Dave Joerger were sitting there like, ‘We got to work on end-of-the-game stuff — like, now — because you could see it.
“We had a two- or three-package set, and we just literally stayed with it. We didn’t have much else to go to. That gives the other team too big of an advantage.”
DeAndre Jordan joins Sixers
Veteran center DeAndre Jordan, who signed with the Sixers earlier this week, joined the team in Miami and is expected to be in uniform for Saturday’s game. But Rivers implied that he does not expect Jordan to be a factor against the Heat, unless the game gets out of hand.
“If we’re playing him, that tells you all you need to know,” Rivers said.