The biggest story in the NBA over the last few days has been the plight of Ben Simmons, whose season formally ended without him ever stepping on the court as the Nets got unceremoniously dumpstered by the Celtics. That’s probably good news for the guy who he was traded for, who has been allowed to somewhat quietly underperform for a Philadelphia 76ers team within range of a historic collapse against the Toronto Raptors. James Harden hasn’t given his new team enough, and though they’re still the favorites to advance out of their first-round series, they’re suddenly within the margin of error for an all-time pants-shitting. With Joel Embiid hurt, the Sixers need Harden to be better.
The Sixers had a chance to close out the Raptors on Monday night, securing the gentleman’s sweep after ceding the actual sweep in Game 4. Embiid decided to play through a torn ligament in his shooting thumb, though the Raptors also had to contend Game 5 without their best player, as Fred VanVleet left Game 4 (and probably the rest of the series) with a strained hip flexor. The point of having multiple superstar players is twofold: you can break defenses when they play together by making them deal with multiple attackers who demand double teams, and you buy yourself the best possible insurance policy in case of adversity, like, say, your MVP candidate tearing his thumb.
Harden is here to augment Embiid’s abilities, but also to be the tip of the spear when Embiid is limited. In this regard, he’s fallen well short of expectations. Harden shot 5-for-17 in Game 4, then 4-for-11 in Game 5. Missing seven shots is of far less concern than taking just 11, as it both forces the Sixers’ other guys to do more (Matisse Thybulle is, functionally, the best defender on the court for both teams right now) and also echoes uncomfortably with Harden’s well-established history of turning into a pumpkin in the highest leverage situations.
Maybe I am just a TV-watcher diagnosing a team’s ills from afar without any firsthand experience, but you know who is not? Joel Embiid. Here’s what he had to say after the Game 5 loss, in which the Sixers managed 88 points.
I’ve been saying all season since he got here, he needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself. That’s not really my job. That’s probably on Coach to talk to him and tell him to take more shots, especially if they’re going to guard me the way they’ve been guarding. But that’s really not my job. But we all need to be better offensively. We missed a bunch of wide-open shots. At times, I just felt like we just invited, when I was getting doubled, we were not aggressive attacking the ball. We just kept moving the ball around the perimeter, and that gave them time to recover, and that’s why we’re not able to get anything out of it.ESPN
Despite his thumb injury, the Raptors are doubling Embiid every time he gets the rock, essentially playing a gambit and betting that they can scramble around faster than Harden can punish them in a 4-on-3. Through the last two games, that’s been a smart bet. Harden has moved the ball well enough, though he’s shied away from the basket to a pretty alarming degree. He doesn’t appear to have any explosiveness, which may have something to do with the lingering hamstring injury that’s bothered him all season. Whatever the cause, a sizable and important chunk of Harden’s game has disappeared. He’s still making plays for others and getting to the line, but he’s not scoring at the rim at all. Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Herring ran the numbers, and they’re grim. Harden is shooting 40 percent on drives through five games against the Raptors, down from 64 and 62.5 percent over the course of the last two postseasons. He’s falling short at the rim against a Raptors team that doesn’t play any rim protectors, either. Those smaller defenders are way more adept at sprinting around and stabilizing as a unit after a double than meeting a determined attacker at the rim, so while Harden can still find passing lanes for his teammates, doing so at the expense of going to the cup is playing into Toronto’s hands.
Even without VanVleet, Toronto has slowly imposed their will on this series. The two teams want to play in very different ways, though the Raptors’ post-positional cadre of tall wings has been able to force tons of turnovers, find transition opportunities, and grind away at Philadelphia’s more traditional setup. They will enter Game 6 with serious momentum, knowing that their opponents, whose coach and second star are famous for falling apart in high-pressure situations, are the ones who have something to prove. Philly needs just one great game from its stars, though as we’ve seen through five games, nothing will be easy for them.