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For Joel Embiid, James Harden and the 76ers, it's go time

For Joel Embiid, James Harden and the 76ers, it's go time

Since the NBA All-Star break, the Philadelphia 76ers have kicked it into an extra gear. 

With a record of 8-3 since that point, they have ripped off six straight wins and are only one game back of the Boston Celtics for second place in the Eastern Conference. Despite inconsistent defensive efforts at the beginning of the month, the team has scored at least 112 points in each of its eight March contests.

Translation: The offense is rolling. 

Reason No. 1? Joel Embiid.

On Wednesday evening in Cleveland, just before his March 16 birthday, the now-29-year-old fittingly celebrated with yet another commanding performance to continue the downright dominant stretch he’s on.

Sure, he might've gotten away with a momentum-shifting charge (that he feels was the correct overturned call), but does that really change the fact that there were no answers for his game?

It’s not just the Cavs who felt the hurt (36 points, 18 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 assists to be specific). Typically this writer is not somebody who says check the box scores, but CHECK THE BOX SCORES:

  • March 12 vs. Wizards: 34 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks, 4 assists
  • March 10 vs. Blazers: 39 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks
  • March 7 at Wolves: 39 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks
  • March 6 at Pacers: 42 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block
  • March 4 at Bucks: 31 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds
  • March 2 at Mavericks: 35 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals
  • Feb. 27 vs. Heat: 27 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists
  • Feb. 25 vs. Celtics: 41 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks
  • Feb. 23 vs. Grizzlies 27 points, 19 rebounds, 6 blocks, 6 assists

“I've yet to see the scheme that has stopped Joel Embiid, whether it's double teams, triple teams,” Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said before Wednesday’s loss to Philly.

“When he has the ball in his hands, I mean, he's extremely difficult to deal with because of the pressure he can put on individuals, but (also) how crafty he is in playing in small spaces. I think he's shooting close to 14 free throws a game since the All-Star break. And that's because it is so crowded and he does such a great job of maneuvering and moving the ball to create contact and draw fouls.”

That’s what Embiid does. He imposes his will with brute strength, draws multiple bodies and operates from there. When he isn’t getting doubled, he is patient with his dribble and can hurt anybody with the pull-up mid-range game. He can also shoot over the top of your doubles and go with the old-school, back-to-the-basket game to force his way into the paint.

And if that’s not enough, there’s James Harden — who’s having arguably his cleanest and most efficient season since his Houston days — working the high pick-and-roll with him in the pocket, where the 7-foot, 280-pound monster of a man can catch the ball and tiptoe around defenders with the gliding finesse of a small guard.

“That’s why he’s one of the best bigs to ever play the game. I don’t think we’ve seen a big like it — well, I haven’t,” Harden told Basketball News after Philly’s 118-109 win in Cleveland. “He can handle the ball, he can shoot it, he can be powerful when you need him to be. 

“So I’m just grateful he’s on my team, that we’re on the same team. But just trying to find ways every single game to make his job easier, to make our job easier, and he’s doing a great job of leading us."

Embiid told Basketball News that it’s as simple as being aggressive.

“My mindset is always to score first, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If I get doubled, I’m gonna pass it. It’s all about making the right plays,” Embiid said. “It’s not so much about just scoring the ball and passing. It’s about just making the right plays, and I think that’s where the game has really slowed down. 

“(I’m) just trying to take advantage of what’s given to me. A couple plays, they hard doubled me, and that’s something I’ve seen a lot, whether it’s Toronto… a lot of teams try to do the same things, but it’s something that I’ve figured out and you’ve just gotta keep making the right plays.”

There’s just something about the pairing of Harden and Embiid that clicks. When you have a ball-handler with the former’s patience and the latter’s ability to toggle between when to use his strength and when to use his touch, there’s little opposing squads can do to stop it. Throw in the way the two get to the line, and the task gets taller.

"I was with James for four years in Houston, and he's a master at manipulating the rules, and Joel does the same," Bickerstaff said. "So you have to be extremely disciplined, but even then, they find a way to create that contact and draw a foul."

Harden is enjoying the hottest three-point season of his career at 39.6% from distance, and it’s been a consistent shot the whole campaign. (Post-injury, he’s been even better.) He’s leading the NBA with 10.8 assists per game too, and over his last five contests has dished out almost 13 dimes a night, including a 20-assist performance in Indiana. Engineering one of the hottest offenses in the league on a nightly basis deserves just as much recognition as Embiid.

Correct decisions and impeccable timing have staples of this incredible one-two punch, but what does it look like when both stars are at their best?

“Trouble for the other team, ‘cause we’re scoring the ball and then you’re getting the other guys involved, just dominating the game,” said Harden, who vouched for Embiid as MVP following his game-winner vs. Portland a week ago. “And if we can do that as many times each quarter and then each game, then it’s gonna be tough for teams to beat us.”

“I don’t think I’m at my best yet. I think I’m trending towards that. I think I’ve got a lot more to give,” Embiid said. “Defensively, I’m getting there. I’m getting back to myself. Usually, I take another step in the playoffs. The last couple games, (it’s) been a huge focus for me, especially since All-Star break. So like I said, I’ve got a long way to go, but getting better every single day. And for him, same thing. Try to get better every single day. But it’s not about just us, it’s about the team. It’s about, ‘How do we bring everybody together to make sure everybody’s successful?’”

(Special shout out to Tyrese Maxey, who's been terrific since reentering Philly's starting five. He shows no lack of confidence when receiving the ball in the half-court, speeds down the floor in transition and puts daggers in opposing fans' hearts.)

After the win in Cleveland, Philly will remain on the road for six of their next seven games. Embiid and Harden mirrored each other’s thoughts regarding how to approach the stretch run toward the postseason: focusing on one game at a time.

“Try to find ways to win, what works offensively, what works defensively. We’re in a pretty good spot,” Embiid said.

“Continue to get better. Hitting the peak at the right time,” Harden said. “We got 14 games left, so every game’s gonna be critical for us, whether it’s seeding or whether it’s just our confidence as a group. (Wednesday) was a good win for us.”

The Sixers' dynamic duo recognizes what point of the season this is. If Philly can ride this wave going into mid-April as a team, this group will be a tough out.

“It’s time to go,” Embiid. “Playoffs are around the corner. We’ve still got a lot more games to go. But you want to go to the playoffs with the right mentality, and that’s to be great defensively and try to find ways to dominate offensively.”

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