All these years after Sam Hinkie’s silly ‘Trust the Process’ strategy, this is what the 76ers are facing: A second-round series against a better team and a 1-0 deficit after Monday’s 106-92 loss to the Miami Heat, with Joel Embiid watching from home because of a fractured face with the legacies of Doc Rivers and James Harden on the line.
The Sixers can try to downplay whatever happens in the playoffs, which is the go-to move these days for the losing team. Just ask the Brooklyn Nets. Or the Minnesota Timberwolves. Philly also has the very valid excuse of missing its MVP candidate, Embiid, whose orbital bone cracked when it absorbed Pascal Siakam’s elbow in the last series against the Raptors.
But there was hope that Harden, a former MVP himself, could pick up the slack and rediscover the offensive brilliance that once made him a nightly threat to drop 50 points.
Instead, Game 1 became another reminder of Harden’s decline. At 32 years old, he no longer creates enough space off the dribble to dominate his matchups on the perimeter. He’s lost a step and it was evident with Monday’s underwhelming stat line: 16 points (just four in the second half), nine rebounds, five assists, five turnovers.
“I don’t know if at this stage if he’s capable to create the pace that he needs to play at to be aggressive,” TNT analyst Kenny Smith said after the game. “Especially against a Miami team that won’t fast break. In his earlier days, he’d be able to create a pace that would get him 25 shots.”
Maybe it’s the years of partying and showing up to training camp out of shape. Maybe it’s the new officiating rules that discourage foul-baiting, a staple of Harden’s game with the Rockets. Maybe it’s the wear and tear of the sore hamstring that sabotaged his playoffs last year with the Nets.
Whatever the reason, this isn’t the Harden running rampant in Mike D’Antoni’s offense. He’s still a savvy playmaker and an upgrade over the ghost of Ben Simmons, but it’s not as simple as asking Harden to “be more aggressive.”
Without Embiid, Harden’s under pressure to deliver above his capabilities. And if he doesn’t, it will serve as another indictment on Harden’s underwhelming playoff resume, with his Rockets failing to advance to the Finals despite six years seeded in the West’s top-4.
Then there’s Rivers.
Like Harden, he’s a surefire Hall of Famer. Rivers is only behind Gregg Popovich in victories among active coaches. But it’s now been 16 years since his only championship with the Celtics, with his ensuing Clippers years being defined by playoff disappointments and collapses.
Rivers also came under fire for not subbing out Embiid during garbage time of a Game 5 victory over the Raptors, when the center caught Siakam’s elbow and suffered a concussion alongside the fractured orbital bone. There’s supposedly optimism for Embiid returning in either Game 3 or 4 while wearing a protective mask, but that could be too late for masked heroes if Harden and Rivers don’t figure out a better way to utilize a diminished former MVP.
There’s a lot on the line for Philadelphia, Harden and Rivers.