At any rate, the people were ready to see what Harden looked
like. Physically, you want to see how he looks since he's been
dealing with hamstring issues dating back to last postseason;
emotionally, because the level of engagement shown from him during
the latter stages of his Nets run was ... I mean, we can say it —
it was shameful at times. On a different team, with a different
superstar and reunited with Daryl Morey, it was fair to wonder how
juiced up he was going to be.
And beyond that, what the heck was the partnership with Joel
Embiid (that different superstar) going to look like? Seamless?
Spotty? It's game one, after all.
We saw some encouraging stuff on Friday night. The Sixers
absolutely blasted the Wolves 133-102. Harden (27-8-12) and Embiid
(34-10-3-1) took turns wrecking the defense, and even hooked up a
few times — north of 20 times when combining handoff and ball
screen possessions — to do it.
Let's take a look at how the two operated together.
This was the smaller sample of play types — the Sixers had five
possessions featuring a handoff between the two, per Second
The method of choice was Chicago action — a pindown that flows
into a handoff. We got multiple instances of Embiid handling the
ball above the break, with Tobias Harris or resident non-shooter
Matisse Thybulle prying Harden open with a screen before jetting
into the handoff with Embiid.
Peep the subtleties of the spacing on the possessions above. On
the first action, Harris cuts through after setting the screen for
Harden, setting up an empty corner for the star duo to work
Harden ends up taking the floater in the first clip —
Karl-Anthony Towns doesn't fully commit to Harden, opting to lunge
while backpedaling — but look at the weakside. With Harris
relocating, Thybulle positions himself to set a pin-in screen on
Anthony Edwards. Edwards is tasked with defending both players
(splitting the difference) since Jarred Vanderbilt rotated over to
provide some relief; pin-in screens are a great counter to that
On the second clip, you get the inverse. Thybulle sets the
screen this time and hangs around the perimeter. Harden is able to
fully engage Towns on the drive, opening up the lob to Embiid.
D'Angelo Russell sinks into the paint due to Thybulle's lack of
shooting gravity, but you tell me who's gonna win this particular
This is where the fun stuff — or if you're a Wolves
fan/observer, the infuriating stuff — happened.
If you want a quick number, the Sixers generated a whopping 1.29
points per possession on trips featuring a Harden-Embiid ball
screen. For reference, the best transition offense in the
league (Chicago Bulls) generate 1.2 points per possession.
Heck, Giannis generates 1.18 points per
possession in transition, if that further drives the point home for
Though they've toned it down as of late, the Wolves still show
two to the ball in pick-and-roll pretty often. That requires a
bunch of chemistry and connectivity on the backline to put out
fires. Running that style against a passer like Harden, and a
short-roll (or pop) terror like Embiid posed some
When you think of a ball-handler getting trapped (or hard-hedged
against), the natural progression seems to be "big catches the ball
on the short roll and finds the best passing outlet against a
4-on-3, 3-on-2, or 2-on-1, depending on the spacing."
Embiid's different in that he's fine with popping against that
look. On top of that, he can shoot off the pop or drive
out of it. He's also devastating because his short roll reps turn
into him bullying a much smaller helper.
Think about it: if Embiid's man — a large human being that
probably can't guard him anyway — is 25ish feet from the basket,
who the heck is stopping his rampage?
This ends in a Harris miss, but you can see the issue. Embiid
pops here and has the shot if he wants it. He decides to drive
instead, bullies Towns (aka the large human that can't guard him
anyway), draws a double and makes the easy kick.
We get more of a traditional roll from Embiid this time. We also
get no tag or rotation from Vanderbilt, though that's also part of
the fun for Philly. Vanderbilt has to choose between rotating to
Embiid (and likely getting bullied anyway) or staying home on Danny
Green, a plus-shooter.
(As a brief aside, I was pretty impressed with how the Sixers
spaced the floor in this one. Ultimately, with Towns playing high
against Harden, Russell is once again the last line of defense
The Wolves would attempt to do different things. They went to a
zone in the second half, but Embiid was able to find the soft spots
in it. The middle is generally the vulnerable area of a zone.
Offenses want to get into the middle of the floor and set up
high-lows or create easy kick-outs, but Embiid can just get a
There was also drop coverage mixed in, but that poses some
pretty tough problems. In general, Harden is insanely good at
getting downhill, engaging the big (and tempting a third defender
to offer extra assistance), then making the defense wrong. Embiid
isn't a typical lob threat, but he can bully dudes in the
On the Wolves side, Towns just ... isn't good as a drop
defender. That reality is what led to their aggressive scheme shift
to begin with. That, combined with some ill-timed (or non-existent)
rotations made it easier for the Sixers to generate good stuff.
Anthony Edwards gets knocked off his path. Towns is doing ...
something as he backpedals in his drop. Taurean Prince is a beat
late to show help. All things considered, the Wolves end up in a
decent spot with three defenders converging on Embiid. So, of
course, they foul him.
I'm curious to see what the Harden-Embiid combo looks in a
tougher context than the Wolves provide, but the skeleton of a
successful partnership was on full display.
And it's pretty scary.
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