3 Observations from Harden’s Brilliant Sixers Debut, Win Over Timberwolves

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

Things could not have gone much better in James Harden's debut with the Philadelphia 76ers. He scored an efficient 27 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out 12 assists.

The Sixers handily defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves 133-102 on the road at the Target Center in Minnesota. The win moved them to 36-23 on the season and an Eastern Conference-best 20-10 on the road.

Joel Embiid led the Sixers 34 points on 10-of-18 shooting from the field to go with 10 rebounds and three assists.

The Sixers offense looked great in the debut of the Embiid-Harden era, scoring 133 points while shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 48.7 percent from beyond the arc. The team let loose from three-point range, launching 39 attempts.

The Sixers next take on the New York Knicks on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Madison Square Garden. Here are three observations from the win over the Timberwolves:

First look at the Harden-Embiid offense

The new-look Sixers offense, after going through some bumps in the opening two minutes, got off to a quick start against the Timberwolves. Harden scored his first points in a Sixers uniform on an and-one with 8:43 remaining in the opening quarter.

He broke his man down and got to the basket with ease. The Sixers have not had a player who can break down someone on the perimeter consistently since the Allen Iverson era in the early 2000s.

The Sixers offense is clearly going to prioritize ball movement surrounding Harden and Embiid. The passing and three-point shooting both were on point in the first quarter. The team shot 5-of-9 from beyond the arc in the opening quarter, leading to them building an early 34-25 lead.

Harden, in addition to his scoring ability, made an immediate impact due to his passing and ability to run the offense. He made multiple beautiful passes throughout the game, including a frozen rope pass to a sprinting Tyrese Maxey for a transition layup with 7:14 remaining in the second quarter.

While Harden's point guard abilities will vastly help the Sixers offense, his scoring continued to be the biggest way he produces on the floor. He remained calm and collected throughout. He controlled the offense, played efficient basketball and found the right combination of looking for his own shot and playing within the rhythm of the offense. It still feels surreal seeing him drain step-back threes in a Sixers uniform.

The Sixers ran a bit of pick-and-roll between Harden and Embiid, something Harden excels at. It will be interesting to see how much the team utilizes that considering Embiid does not have much experience operating as a roll man.

Embiid got off to a slow start shooting, but he regained his touch in the second half en route to helping the Sixers blow past Minnesota and gain control of the game. After making just two of his first eight shots, he finished the game in rhythm, drilling eight of his last 10 shots from the field.

One of the hallmarks of the new-look Sixers offense will be their ability to draw fouls and get to the free-throw line. The team went to the line 26 times in the first half alone, propelling them to 65 points despite shooting 39.6 percent from the field at halftime. Embiid led the team in free throw attempts with 13, followed by Harden with nine. Embiid and Harden are two of the league's best at getting to the free-throw line, and they proved it against Minnesota. The Sixers finished the game shooting 30 of 36 from the free-throw line.

Maxey is the main beneficiary of the Harden acquisition

There was a ton of discussion over the past few weeks about which Sixers player would benefit the most from the Harden trade. After one game, Maxey is making a huge case to be the primary beneficiary.

He finished with 28 points on 12-of-16 shooting from the field, including knocking down two of his three attempts from beyond the arc. He was flying all over the court, playing with a contrasting style to the slow, steady offense Harden runs. The two connected multiple times in transition, something the Sixers should look to take advantage of throughout the remainder of the season.

The addition of Harden to the roster allows Maxey to focus on his scoring ability. Before the trade, Maxey was attempting to learn how to play the point guard position in addition to playing a big scoring role for the Sixers. Maxey will now be free to focus on putting the ball in the basket, playing off the ball and using his speed to great advantage.

Maxey's defense against Minnesota was impressive as well. He played with active hands and did a good job getting in the passing lanes. He recorded four steals and was a pest on both ends of the floor.

Tobias Harris also benefited from playing with Harden. He only scored six points, but he received a plethora of open looks due to the improved floor spacing provided from having Harden out on the floor. One of the biggest positives from Harris' night was his quick trigger from three, he shot 2 of 6 from three-point range. If he continues to pull the trigger on those open looks they will eventually begin to fall.

Doc Rivers' rotation management was near perfection

Are the days of poor rotation management and all-bench lineups over for the Sixers? Head coach Doc Rivers did a much better job managing the rotations in the first game since the Harden addition. He said during the All-Star break he would split up Embiid, Harden, Maxey and Harris into pairs and always have at least one of them on the floor. Rivers' first subs showed he was splitting them into Embiid-Maxey and Harden-Harris.

The Sixers used to get hamstrung a ton by Rivers' poor rotations, with it arguably costing them multiple games this season. The rotations were managed to near perfection against Minnesota, with the team even going on a run at the end of the first half with Embiid off the floor.

The team blew the game wide open in the third quarter, building up a 24-point lead with three minutes remaining in the third quarter. Rivers briefly tried going to the all-bench lineup at the end of the third and it did not go well, with Minnesota cutting the lead down from 24 to 18. Rivers did a good job responding, bringing the starters back in to begin the fourth quarter and not taking his foot off the gas.

The Harden acquisition opens up so many different options for the Sixers, but one of the most important of them will prove to be opening up the rotations and getting rid of the all-bench lineups.

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