James Harden’s Sixers debut: Storylines to watch

Storylines to watch with Harden set to make Sixers debut originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Time for some action.

The All-Star break is over and James Harden is set to make his Sixers debut on Friday night in Minnesota against the Timberwolves.

Here are the essentials:

  • When: 8 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7:15 p.m.

  • Where: Target Center

  • Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia

  • Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

Smooth first steps?

Every player responds differently to time on the sidelines.

It’s certainly possible Harden will be rusty in his return from left hamstring tightness. He hasn’t played since the Nets’ Feb. 2 loss to the Kings and is on a new team. Intelligence and intuition might not always overcome lack of familiarity.

It’s also possible the 32-year-old will be like Joel Embiid, who came back from a serious case of COVID-19 in November and scored 42 points against the Timberwolves in a double-overtime loss.

However Harden performs, it will be intriguing to see how Doc Rivers uses him and what changes about the team’s offensive approach.

“Listen, fitting James Harden into an offense is not that hard,” Rivers said on Feb. 14 after Harden’s first Sixers practice. “It really isn’t. He’s just a terrific basketball player, so you don’t need to overcomplicate it. You know where he’s been great at, you know what direction he wants to go, and so you put him on those sides of the floor.

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“A couple of the things we ran today, our guys automatically flipped it without me saying a word. ‘Delay 4 Rub,’ we always run it the opposite way. And I didn’t say a word, and Tyrese (Maxey) ran it on the other side of the floor. And they just did it. So that’ll happen. … And when you coach a guy, you find out other things that he does that you didn’t know he could do, and that’ll happen.”

Deciding the duos 

Whenever he faced tricky decisions about who deserved minutes or how he should handle his rotation, Rivers’ predecessor as Sixers head coach felt confident in one big idea.

“The gym will speak,” Brett Brown would say.

Like all coaches, Rivers will listen and perhaps receive assistance with the many lineup-related choices now in front of him.

If Matisse Thybulle improves offensively next to Harden and is the same sensational defender, that would be a clear message from the gym. But experimentation will be necessary to find many of the answers Rivers wants.

For instance, he said the day after the Sixers’ deadline deal that he was unsure exactly how much Embiid and Harden would share the court.

“I don’t know,” Rivers said. “With Ben (Simmons) and Joel, you’re thinking more youth and growing together as much as possible. In this case, you’re just going to try to figure out the best two guys — meaning between Tyrese and Tobias (Harris) and Joel and James — to have on the floor, and who fits who. These are decisions and things I don’t know yet.”

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Another team to worry about 

Will the Timberwolves spoil the occasion?

Minnesota got 23 fourth-quarter points from D’Angelo Russell and beat the Grizzlies on Thursday night. Russell’s clutch scoring was also a major factor in that first Sixers-Timberwolves meeting of the season in Philadelphia.

Following a 1-for-11 shooting night, Anthony Edwards is 4 for his last 29 from the floor and 1 for his last 17 from three-point range. He remains dangerous and full of confidence, though. Three-point contest champion Karl-Anthony Towns has scored dependably this year, posting 20 or more points in 43 of his 53 appearances.

Friday is the Sixers’ first chance to develop the fully healthy, post-deadline version of their team, which now includes 10-day contract signee Willie Cauley-Stein. But wins won’t be automatic just because Harden is now on board.

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