Instant observations: Sixers beat Knicks again in James Harden’s Philly debut

James Harden, Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey co-starred in another Sixers victory, beating the Knicks 123-108 with what is quickly becoming a familiar formula for this group.

Here’s what I saw.

The Good

• James Harden’s offensive brilliance was just about the only thing keeping the Sixers out of the abyss in the first half of Wednesday’s game. There were some creative set designs shown off by the coaching staff in this one, leading to a couple of easy buckets, but the Knicks successfully jammed Philly up for a lot of the opening 24 minutes, taking a bit of the sting out of a rabid home crowd.

Saying that James Harden “can” do everything doesn’t always mean that he “will” do everything — the drop-off in volume he has experienced as a catch-and-shoot guy over the years is proof positive of that. But Harden used almost every tool at his disposal early in this game, attacking as a jumpshooter, a driver, and occasionally as a passer, though the Sixers’ role players didn’t live up to their end of the bargain when open shots came their way.

After watching Harden carve them into a million pieces with his passing on Sunday afternoon, the Knicks tried to send slightly less pressure in his direction when Embiid screened for him on Wednesday, hoping to take away the easy dunks, layups, and fouls drawn that Embiid feasted on in the previous meeting. Harden used that to his advantage as a scorer, getting to the rim and finishing even when he had to do it through contact with no whistle to help him out.

In the opening minutes of the second half, Harden focused less on his own scoring and more on trying to get the most out of his MVP candidate teammate. When Tyrese Maxey got it going in the third quarter, Harden was happy to get out of the way a bit when they shared the floor together, allowing his backcourt partner to star as he was in the midst of tearing the building down. That sort of recognition is as important as Harden’s ability to score in isolation, because it’s the sort of thing that builds trust between teammates that they will need when the chips are down.

Harden has walked right into the team and offered a calming presence on the perimeter, solving a lot of problems they’ve been dealing with for years. It may not have been the exclamation point game he put together as MSG on Sunday, but it was damn good.

• Joel Embiid did not follow up his 37-point, 27 free-throw performance with the same sort of punch on Wednesday, perhaps because meeting that bar every game would be borderline impossible. But with offense and touches occasionally hard to come by, Embiid did well to put pressure on the officials to put him on the line, keeping the game at a slower pace as the rest of his teammates struggled to catch up.

The big man seemed visibly frustrated in the first half, partially with the officials and partially with the state of the game. He didn’t help matters much with some sloppy turnovers that inspire comparisons to previous seasons, when he was not as adept at dealing with double teams. There was still plenty left in the tank for Embiid to turn it up in winning time, and he got a kickstart from Harden, who was calling his number early and often in the third quarter, even hooking up with him on a stepback jumper converted into an assist.

Those early buckets seemed to get Embiid going, and he really set himself apart by locking in on the defensive end in the third quarter, moving more decisively and exerting more effort to contest shots around the basket, even squeezing some ballhandlers along the baseline to junk up New York’s offense. For Philadelphia to get where they want to go, that is the version of Embiid they need to have when the postseason comes, the guy locking down the paint and holding up on switches to cover for his less capable teammates. With Harden taking responsibility out of his hands on offense, Embiid (in theory) has more energy to offer on that end of the floor, and he ought to take advantage of it.

It says a lot about the year Embiid is having and his current level of dominance that he can play a so-so game and still dominate the floor for long stretches of time, leading his team toward victory. 27-12-4 in a “decent” game is just hilarious.

(By the way, even this decent Embiid game showed off some stuff that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t do that often in previous seasons. Embiid picked up a short-roll assist to Danny Green out of a pick-and-roll in the third quarter, a sentence that wouldn’t have seemed possible even a year ago.)

• I don’t know what he’s ultimately going to offer in his second playoff run this year, but I feel pretty confident Tyrese Maxey is built to withstand the pressure of being a big-time player over the long-term. He gets moved around, put in different roles, stuck in weird lineups, goes through the most unorthodox rookie season in modern NBA history, and somehow always finds a way to contribute. He is thriving next to James Harden and Joel Embiid, and looks the part of a potential No. 3 guy next to those core vets moving forward.

Perhaps it’s because of how the floor is tilting with Harden in the mix, but it almost feels like Maxey looks faster than ever at the moment. You could credit that to increased confidence and comfort in the offense, certainly, because Maxey’s decision-making has been damn-near instant lately. Whether it’s getting up a catch-and-shoot three, spinning Immanuel Quickley around with a beautiful pivot, or tearing toward the rim with absolutely no fear of contact or falling, Maxey is moving at a speed most opponents can’t match.

The most important thing, frankly, is that Maxey appears to have hit his absolute apex outcome as a shooter, with the work he puts in to improve shining through this season. It no longer feels unusual when he cans a stepback three off-the-dribble, and catch-and-shoot threes from the corner are easy money for him, to the point that Philadelphia wants him as a strong side outlet in the event that teams try to send help toward Harden and Embiid.

Maxey is now a threat on-ball and off-ball, which is an outcome I wouldn’t have imagined possible this soon even though I was bullish on him coming out of Kentucky. He is an absolute delight to watch, and he is contributing to winning long before most guys his age show they can. Maxey is even getting to the line more these days, and if he’s able to sustain that long-term, that takes him up yet another level. A hell of a steal for this franchise in any case.

• There were definitely some opportunities left on the table for Tobias Harris against the Knicks, but I do think there were good examples in this game of how he has to fit into the broader unit, chipping in during short bursts while the big guns control the game for most of the night. There were (deserved) groans around the arena when he passed up on open threes, but he took enough to force closeouts and did some important work in the opening stretch of the fourth quarter, helping to keep the Sixers out in front while Joel Embiid got a breather.

• Georges Niang is what every coach dreams about in a role player. He knows what he’s good at, he knows what he’s there to do, and he does not hesitate for even a split second when he’s asked to play his part. Harden and Embiid have to love playing with this dude — they create open looks for him, and he not only takes them, he makes them at a reasonably high clip. It’s a stark contrast from some of their other role players, who need to be convinced to simply do their jobs.

There weren’t many bright spots on Philadelphia’s bench on Wednesday, nor do I expect that will change much from now until the end of the year, but Shake Milton also had a nice run for the Sixers against the Knicks. Offering a more subdued version of what Tyrese Maxey has given Philly next to James Harden, Milton took advantage of hard closeouts and found his way to the painted area, coming up with some acrobatic finishes at the rim during a time where nothing was coming easy ( or at all) for the Sixers on offense.

The Bad

It appears you can count James Harden among the people frustrated with Tobias Harris’ slower/reluctant trigger from deep. Though Harris let a fair number of catch-and-shoot looks go on Wednesday night, Harden was on him at different points after Harris passed up further opportunities, evidently unhappy that the open looks being created were not immediately being turned into shots.

The man has a point. As we’ve noted here throughout the year, regularly turning open threes into tough midrange looks is not a desirable outcome in basically any circumstance. His teammates would almost certainly prefer to live with more misses from three than ugly, forced shots from 15 feet.

• Paul Millsap looking older and slow is not something you can really blame him for. Time catches up to all of us. But most of us are not being used as the default backup five behind Joel Embiid on a team with title aspirations, and Millsap is compounding the decline he has experienced with mental errors. Just because Sixers fans have grown accustomed to seeing their backup centers commit turnovers doesn’t mean it’s a thing that should be accepted. In fact, it’s less acceptable than ever for whoever is in that spot to give up a Philadelphia possession, because their role should be as simple as screening for Harden and then running to the rim or spotting up from deep, depending on who the player is .

Ultimately, it’s on Rivers to figure out the best option here, and it seems as though Deandre Jordan is going to walk into that role if and when the team signs him in the coming days. That seems like bad practice, especially considering that the Sixers haven’t given a real look to any of the other bigs on their roster. Going with Millsap to see what he has is one thing, but playing him and playing him and playing him despite how he has looked is just silly.

There’s basically one defensible explanation for going the Millsap route at this point — the Sixers are trying to play more of a switch-heavy style with Harden leading an Embiid-less lineup, and Millsap makes some sense as a cog within that style. At least, Millsap used to make sense within that style, before his legs left him. If you want to try that now, you might as well throw Paul Reed in there and see if he can create some chaos and hold up on defense. Just one man’s opinion, I suppose.

• There were some downright awful turnovers in this game. A few people are going to get lectured during their next film session, I would imagine.

The Ugly

• The home crowd does not have a lot of patience left for Furkan Korkmaz, and based on how he has played most of this season, forgetting Wednesday night’s game for a moment, I don’t really blame him. Korkmaz is a shooter who hasn’t made shots, but he’s nailed on in the rotation regardless of whether he has it going or not. It’s the latter part that’s the problem — a role player not having it night-to-night is one thing, but there’s no real consideration for other options in the rotation from Rivers.

Korkmaz didn’t exactly help his case with the public on Wednesday night, obviously, with one of his first touches leading to a wild attempt at the rim that drew boos around Wells Fargo Center. It didn’t get much better from there, with Korkmaz drawing even louder boos after missing an open three on the left wing.

Short of yelling/chanting Isaiah Joe’s name, I’m not sure how much stronger a signal the public could send to Rivers that they want to see something else. Shake Milton basically got all of his minutes in the second half, so call that a win for the crowd.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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