For Joel Embiid’s teammates, getting the ball to their cornerstone big man and then getting out of the way has generally been a good idea.
On Friday night, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers was grateful that James Harden intuitively took that approach.
Harden’s instincts set Embiid up for a game-winning fadeaway jumper that completed a wild comeback win over the Trail Blazers at Wells Fargo Center.
“Joel made a great shot,” Rivers said, “but James Harden made an amazing read because it was going to be a fake handoff to James ... Jo was going to (either) go or give it to James. But Jo caught it deeper than we thought he could catch it, and James cut.
“That was such a great read. I’m telling you, there’s 10 people that could see that instead of 99.9 percent of the league that would’ve come anyway, brought their guy and crowded it. ... He won’t get credit for it other than what I’m doing, but it was a hell of a read. That was why (Embiid) had space.”
Harden noted he’s “not robotic out there” and called the play “basketball common sense.”
“Just not run to the ball,” Harden said with a chuckle of his read. “Give Joel as much space as he needs to create the shot. Most likely, if he got a shot up, it was going in. I just tried to give him space … and he created a shot and he made it.”
After a 39-point night on 13-for-20 shooting, Embiid leads the NBA with 33.4 points per game. He’s posted a career-high 130.2 points per 100 shots, according to Cleaning the Glass, and a career-best 64.8 true shooting percentage. Much like with Harden during his run of three straight scoring titles from the 2017-18 through ’19-20 seasons, anything resembling a 1-on-1 situation looks very favorable for Embiid.
Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Harden has averaged 21.9 points and a league-leading 10.8 assists.
“Something that he works on every day,” Harden said of Embiid’s game-winner. “That’s why he’s the MVP of the league.”
Since they fell to 12-12 on Dec. 5 with a loss to the Rockets in double overtime, the Sixers’s 74.4 winning percentage (32-11) is No. 1 in the NBA and their offensive rating (119.6) is No. 2 behind the Kings. It’s difficult to believe that anyone during that stretch has been decisively better than Embiid, a back-to-back MVP runner-up.
Embiid perhaps slid a point about this year’s MVP race into an answer about the Sixers’ second-half defense.
“I think a couple of plays down the stretch we went to one through five, just switching everything,” he said. “The game plan was really to trap (Damian Lillard) the whole game, and they hurt us a lot with that. Once we started going one through five … I think I’m a pretty good defender — and defense matters. So I thought as a team, we did a good job.”
Embiid is indeed an elite defensive player. And though the Sixers’ team defense has often looked porous — Portland scored 71 first-half points, including 19 apiece for Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant — they’ve regularly accessed a much higher level late in games. In terms of defensive rating, the Sixers rank 15th in the first quarter, 14th in the second, 20th in the third, and third in the final period, per NBA.com/Stats. The team’s defensive rating in the clutch is 93.2. That’s tied for first with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets.
Putting all that aside, the Sixers have opened March 5-1 and Embiid’s teammates rightly feel like they’re playing with an MVP.
“Joel just being Joel,” Georges Niang said.