The Philadelphia 76ers are now two games into the James Harden era. Early returns indicate that the Harden and Joel Embiid partnership is going to be a big success. First the new Sixers bashed up the Timberwolves, 133–102, last Friday, and then on Sunday they went to New York and duffed the Knicks, 125–109. Embiid and Harden scored a combined 127 points in those games, and if you are the type of NBA fan who likes to say things like, “C’mon, ref, let them play!” then the first sentence of the next paragraph is going to piss you off.
In two games together, Embiid and Harden have shot a combined 59 free throws. Sunday’s game against the Knicks was a particularly grim omen for teams tasked with figuring out how to prevent Harden and Embiid from bleeding them to death at the line. Embiid was a particular nuisance for the Knicks, going to the line 27 times and making 23 of his free-throws. Harden’s 10 trips to the foul line might seem pedestrian by comparison, but he’s surpassed his season average in free-throw attempts in each of his first two games with the Sixers. One foul-drawing superstar is a huge headache for teams trying to keep their defensive schemes and rotations intact; trying to contain an offense that can throw two of the best foul-hunters in the game at you must feel like fighting fires in hell.
It’s not just that Embiid (11) and Harden (8) are both in the top five in free-throw attempts per game, it’s that being on the floor together will only make it even easier for both players to draw trips to the line. Embiid was already taking more free throws than anyone else in the league while doing most of his work in the post. With Harden around, he’ll now be able to add a lot more pick-and-pops and pick-and-rolls to his game. A two-man game featuring Harden and Embiid is going to force a lot of opponents to move and defend in space, and it is in those moments that they will be even more susceptible to fouling. It’s already next to impossible to keep Embiid off the line when he just faces a guy up and lowers his shoulder, so imagine how much more difficult that task becomes when he’s rolling to the rim and receiving a perfect pocket pass from James goddamn Harden. No thanks!
“Unstoppable” was the word Embiid used to describe the Sixers’ offense now that it has added Harden to the mix. The evidence so far bears that assessment out. Both of New York’s centers, Mitchell Robinson and Jericho Sims, fouled out of Sunday’s game, which is something that tends to happen to guys who are left with the impossible choice of either letting the other team score at will or desperately fouling while overmatched and out of position. After the game, both Harden and Embiid spoke about their budding chemistry and the kind of pressure they can put defenses under, but it fell to someone outside of the partnership, young Tyrese Maxey, to most accurately describe the current state of things. From ESPN:
“It’s … I have no words for it,” Maxey said. “[Opposing teams] can’t do anything. If they don’t foul them, they’re going to score. So, I mean, it’s amazing to play with guys like that.ESPN
For as awe-inspiring as the point and free-throw totals may be, the question of whether anyone outside of Philadelphia is going to enjoy watching this team play is another matter. There will be plenty of groaning from opposing fanbases and media members if the Sixers continue to shoot free throws anywhere near the rate they have over the last two games. But none of that will make a lick of difference. Embiid and Harden are two extremely talented basketball players who know exactly how to undermine anyone who tries to defend them. They’ll keep doing it, and it will keep working. Who is going to stop them?