Monday, May 29 2023

Health picture still not pristine for Sixers following 50th win originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Neither James Harden nor Joel Embiid gave glowing self-assessments Wednesday night.

Following the Sixers’ victory over the Mavericks, Harden was asked how he felt in his return from a four-game absence with left Achilles soreness.

“I felt OK,” he said. “Towards the end I got a little sore, but I expected that. Just going to try to do the proper things to maintain it and finish these last six games off. … I don’t think it’s going to completely go away, but I’m out there.”

In Harden’s last outing at Wells Fargo Center before Wednesday, he’d shot 2 for 14 from the floor in a double-overtime loss to the Bulls. He was just 4 for 14 against the Mavs, though Harden’s feel for the game did appear to sharpen steadily during his 15-point, 12-assist night.

Harden committed two rusty turnovers by the 8:48 mark of the opening quarter. He had zero turnovers the rest of the evening.

“It’s difficult when you’re not playing 5-on-5,” Harden said. “We really don’t practice, so just 1-on-1s and working out individually is not the same thing as playing in pick-and-rolls where guys are moving fast, switching, in drop coverage and things like that. … With the repetitions that I’ve always put in for these last 14 years, I just go out there and work off basketball instincts.”

As Harden acknowledged at media day this year, passion for basketball has long been a core part of his identity. He was frustrated by a lingering left hamstring issue last season and unaccustomed to physical problems occupying large chunks of his time and energy.

After Harden worked his way back from a right foot tendon strain early this season, everything looked excellent. The 33-year-old was reliably available just like in his prime years with the Rockets and a brilliant, All-Star-caliber lead ball handler. He played in 43 of the Sixers’ next 46 games and averaged 21.6 points, 11.0 assists and 6.2 rebounds over that period while shooting 40.1 percent from three-point range. The Sixers had the NBA’s best winning percentage and top offensive rating.

However, based on Harden’s words Wednesday, his health picture during that stretch was not completely clean by any means.

“I don’t know where (the Achilles soreness) came from,” he said. “But it’s been bothering me for some months, I would say. I just wanted to continue to play on it. There was one point the last game I played where it was really unbearable, so I couldn’t go out there. So six games to finish the season. Finish off strong, then get another week to prepare. I felt like tonight was the game to come back.”

Harden played a team-high 38 minutes against Dallas, which was consistent with head coach Doc Rivers’ pregame comment about the Sixers’ plan to ramp their players up to the postseason so they’re “able to play 38, 40 good minutes instead of 35 good minutes and five tired minutes.”

Embiid dealt with second-half foul trouble Wednesday and went 33 minutes, posting 25 points and nine rebounds. The MVP contender offered a succinct update on his health after he’d sat out the Sixers’ loss Monday night in Denver. 

“Good enough,” Embiid said of his right calf tightness. “Obviously, I didn’t play my best game tonight, but we got the win. … It’s all about keep building and make sure it’s right for the playoffs.”

The Eastern Conference standings haven’t fully faded from relevance, but the No. 3 seed is easily the most likely outcome for the Sixers. The team sits two games behind the second-seeded Celtics and 2.5 games ahead of the No. 4 Cavs. Obviously, the Sixers should not abandon all caution in pursuit of late-season victories.

That said, wins tend to be nice, and the Sixers were glad to earn their 50th and snap a three-game losing skid despite a decidedly imperfect performance.

Tyrese Maxey kept on scoring with Harden and Embiid back in the fold. With a 22-point showing, he’s now exceeded 20 in seven straight games. De’Anthony Melton (17 points, 5 for 6 from three-point territory) and Georges Niang (14 points, 4 for 7 from three) were bright spots off the Sixers’ bench, too. Maxey seems to have firmly shifted back to a starting role at this stage, but he’s gained plenty of reps alongside second-unit players and sounds clear on his approach in those lineups.

“If I’m out there with the second unit, for the most part what I’m trying to do is get into the paint and create for myself and create for others,” Maxey said. “I think that went well for us tonight. We kind of opened up the floor. Sometimes it’s not even me passing or making a layup, it’s me drawing two, shooting the layup, missing it, and then (Paul Reed) or (someone else) has offensive rebounding opportunities. That’s a unit where we’re just trying to play fast. We’re trying to play a little bit faster, play with a little bit more pace, and get stops and run.”

After a rough start, the Sixers’ team defense on Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving was another positive. The duo totaled 47 points (35 fewer than on March 2) and the Mavs’ supporting cast failed to make clutch jumpers.

Embiid cemented the win by rejecting a Doncic layup try with a little under a minute remaining.

“I thought we did a better job of taking advantage of certain matchups defensively and making sure I was always in the paint,” he said. “The last time we played them, they stretched us out so much, so it made it hard for us to just play our normal defense.

“Tonight, I kind of just had the freedom to do whatever I wanted — switch the matchups and, in a lot of situations, make sure I was the low man to always have at the rim. And then everybody just rotating out of it. I thought we had a good game plan.”

Of course, the night didn’t go exactly as the Sixers mapped out. Their stars also did not deliver soothing words postgame.

Still, Embiid and Harden understand that “good enough” will be all that matters once the playoffs arrive.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Harden said, “but we found a way to win and that’s kind of been the story of our season. … To come away with wins like this where we didn’t play so well, were down for the majority of the game and then took over in the fourth quarter, that’s big time for us.”

Source: Yahoo Sports


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