MINNEAPOLIS — James Harden took Anthony Edwards off the dribble and got to the basket, floating the ball high into the air before it bounced into the rim for the and-one.
And with that, the 76ers’ much-anticipated Harden era was underway. Their marquee midseason acquisition flirted with a triple-double in his debut with his new team, totaling 27 points, 12 assists, and 8 rebounds to help the Sixers cruise to a 133-102 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves Friday night at the Target Center.
“Tonight was a great start,” Harden said. “But we’ve got a long way to go, and we’ll do whatever it takes every single day to build some great habits so we’re prepared when the time is right. ... I’m here to help. I’m here to make life easier for everybody in this organization.”
Coach Doc Rivers said before the game that he was eager to begin this part of the process following the blockbuster trade that brought Harden and Paul Millsap to the Sixers in exchange for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round draft picks. And Harden, a perennial All-Star and former MVP, immediately flashed several elements of his lethal offensive skill set.
Harden got downhill and drew fouls as the primary ballhandler, taking some of that pressure off second-year guard Tyrese Maxey. He twice slung the ball to Tobias Harris for a three-pointer. He connected on a second-quarter floater and got free in the corner for a beyond-the-arc shot. He found Maxey for spot-up threes and straight-line drives, pushed the ball in transition off rebounds — the “biggest change in us is because of James’ ability to see the floor,” Rivers said — and played off All-Star big man Joel Embiid in the pick-and-roll.
“I’ve really never been wide-open like this in my life — seriously,” said Embiid, who led the Sixers with 34 points, including a 11-of-13 mark from the free-throw line, and 10 rebounds. “The passes, I wasn’t even expecting it and [the ball] was just coming.”
Then late in the first half, Harden launched a vintage step-back three-pointer, drew contact from the Timberwolves’ Jarred Vanderbilt, and watched the shot drop for the four-point play — eliciting a groan from the home crowd and stretching the Sixers’ lead to 63-49. He connected on another about midway through the fourth quarter, prompting a hug from Embiid and pushing his team’s lead to 113-89.
“It feels way better,” Maxey said when asked what it’s now like to be on the other side of those dagger shots. “Because I know from experience, in Brooklyn, when he was doing his between the legs and he [does the] step-back on me and you touch him and he gets a foul and you just be like, ‘[Come on].’”
The Sixers’ advantage eventually ballooned to 27 points when Embiid converted at the rim to make the score 88-61 late in the third quarter, and then 35 on an Furkan Korkmaz three-pointer with one minute to play. They shot 51.2% from the floor, made 19 of their 39 three-point attempts and scored 23 fastbreak points. Maxey added 28 points on 12-of-16 shooting, including two key buckets to stretch the Sixers’ back to 22 points early in the fourth quarter.
The dominant win was an ideal start to the Sixers’ sprint to the end of the regular season following the All-Star break. They began Friday in third place in the tightly packed Eastern Conference standings, and are now 36-23 with 23 games to play before the postseason. Up next is a nationally televised road game against the New York Knicks on Sunday afternoon.
Harden’s insertion led to a variety of new lineup combinations throughout the game.
One overarching goal for Rivers was to try to keep at least two of Embiid, Harden, Harris and Maxey on the floor at all times. Another was getting Harden out quickly in the first quarter, since he is still coming off a hamstring injury. Another was playing three stretches with Harden and Harris together, which allowed Maxey to remain the primary ballhandler at times. Maxey picking up three first-half fouls was the only snag in the plan Friday, Rivers said.
“We went with the rotation we wanted to overall,” Rivers said. “ ... So far, so good.”
Matisse Thybulle got the start at small forward, further solidifying his spot in that first unit. Georges Niang and Korkmaz were the first subs with about five minutes to play in the first quarter for Harris and Harden, before Danny Green subbed in for Thybulle. Harden later re-entered when Embiid went off the floor and finished the period with Korkmaz, Green, Harris and Millsap (until Thybulle subbed in for the final defensive possession).
Shake Milton entered the game for the first time at the start of the second quarter, and eventually played a stretch with Maxey, Harden, Harris, and Embiid. The Sixers then finished the half with Harden, Green, Thybulle, Harris, and Millsap.
Rivers went with an all-bench look of Milton, Korkmaz, Green, Niang and Millsap for the first time late in the third quarter, but quickly re-inserted Harris when Minnesota trimmed the Sixers’ lead to 18 points. Harden and Maxey then started the fourth with Green, Harris and Millsap.
“However Doc draws it up and sees it, I’m willing to do it,” Harden said. “As long as we can win, it doesn’t matter.”
Millsap at backup center
For the second consecutive game, Millsap was the backup center behind Embiid. He finished with three points on 3-of-4 from the free-throw line and two rebounds in 12 minutes.
The veteran’s first shift did not go well. He missed two shots at the rim, and clamored for a foul after Edwards blocked a second-quarter dunk attempt. But he made two impact plays in a short burst at the end of the second quarter. His steal led to Harden’s initial four-point play, and an offensive rebound led to the Green missed three-pointer that Thybulle punched in right before the buzzer.
Millsap then played two minutes in the third and another three in the fourth.
Willie Cauley-Stein, who just signed a 10-day contract, made his Sixers debut late in the fourth quarter. Paul Reed, who held the backup center role in the two games following the trade before Millsap arrived, also did not enter the game until garbage time.