James Harden struggles as Bulls grind Sixers offense to a halt
PHILADELPHIA — After De’Anthony Melton picked up a steal, Doc Rivers didn’t call timeout. So, with the game on the line, Joel Embiid did what you would expect him to do: He pointed to James Harden and ran over for a pick-and-roll.
The ball found Tyrese Maxey’s hands and the third-year guard had a chance to play hero at the end of regulation. Melton might have been open in the corner but Maxey fired a 26-footer. It was a reasonable decision but Maxey missed. The game went to overtime.
“I’m confident, I work on my game every single day,” Maxey said. “The one before that, I tried to pass to Melt. And we laughed about it because we trust each other so much. And then that one, I probably could’ve passed it to him that time. But you know, it happens and we move on.”
The 76ers lost in double overtime to Chicago, 109-105. It was a surprising loss, considering how well the Sixers have played lately. They won eight straight games and put together a perfect three-game trip, including a couple of blowout victories over the weekend in Indiana and Charlotte. And Chicago is only battling for a Play-In spot. The Bulls are a respectable team, but one the Sixers should handle on their home court.
More than the loss itself, how the game unfolded was most surprising. The Sixers, whose offense has been lights-out over the past month, were stuck in the mud against the Bulls. It was the Sixers’ fourth least-efficient offensive output of the season. The other three all happened before December.
“I thought our execution all night was awful. Awful,” Rivers said.
The coach added: “I’ll take our defense that we played all night. I can’t live with the way we played offense. So, we have to fix that.”
Since Dec. 1, the Sixers have had the most efficient offense in the NBA: 121.1 points per-100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That represents a 49-game sample, a timeframe in which the Sixers also have the best record in the NBA. The offensive success has not felt like a fluke.
That is because the first week of December was when Harden returned to the lineup. And Harden has been integral to the Sixers’ success this season. Coming into Monday night’s game, he was averaging 21.7 points per game and a league-high 10.7 assists per game. He has done so efficiently, sporting a 61.7 percent true shooting percentage which is a major improvement over last season. He has stabilized the Sixers’ biggest problem, leading lineups without Embiid to a plus-3.7 net rating. Harden has even channeled his Houston days and comes up big as an isolation scorer in key moments.
Coming off a down year, Harden has been everything the Sixers could have asked for. He did not make the All-Star team but has a good chance of making an All-NBA team. No matter how you look at it, he has provided the Sixers with an excellent second option to pair with Embiid.
That consistent, steady play made Monday night’s loss to Chicago even more jarring. Harden likely played his worst game as a Sixer: 2-of-14 from the field, 0-for-6 from beyond the arc, one free-throw attempt, 12 assists and five turnovers.
“He just didn’t play well,” Rivers said. “I don’t think it’s [Chicago], at least not tonight. I thought he was hurting a little bit. I thought our pace was so slow, lot of late clock possessions. And when we’ve done that this year, typically we have not won the game. Or if we’ve won the game, it’s been like tonight when it comes down to the end. But that’s not how we want to play.”
For Harden, there were many lowlights. His turnovers and missed shots often ended up as transition opportunities for Chicago.
Harden couldn’t take advantage of a scrambling defense when Embiid post-ups put the Bulls into rotation.
Harden lost the ball on key possessions, whether it was at half court …
Or while driving on a critical possession.
Rivers said he thought Harden’s foot was hurting him. But Harden did not speak to reporters after the game, so it’s unclear if it’s the same foot issue (right foot tendon sprain) that sidelined him for a month earlier this season. Harden was moving gingerly in the locker room after logging 47 minutes.
At least for the regular season, the Sixers have earned the benefit of the doubt. The last time they lost, their defense looked completely hopeless in Dallas. Then they ran off eight straight wins. And this was a wild game, with Embiid (37 points) fouling out with 3:54 in double overtime. It’s the first time he has lost to Chicago in his career.
“The story of the game, turnovers, and then we couldn’t get really anything going offensively, really the whole game,” Embiid said.
But a healthy, in-form Harden is going to be key moving into the playoffs. The last play is a perfect example.
“Tyrese had the ball and then Joel. I wanted them two in [the play] and then when we swung it, I just thought let’s go with it,” Rivers said. “You have a gut. Sometimes you win with it, sometimes you don’t.”
The ball swung to Harden and the Sixers didn’t get a good shot. In the overtime, it was more of the same as the two overtimes moved along until Maxey took over some largely fruitless possessions.
As the Sixers battle with Boston for the No. 2 seed, Monday’s loss could loom large. But even more than a single result, it’s apparent what happens when the Sixers don’t have Harden operating at a high level: They struggle.
(Photo of James Harden dribbling the ball against Chicago’s Patrick Beverley: Bill Streicher / USA Today)