PHILADELPHIA — The MVP award feels a bit out of reach for Joel Embiid, and James Harden’s behavior the last few years won’t win him any popularity contests around the league.
Suffice to say, there’s more to lose than to gain for this duo even as many have predicted an upset of sorts, believing the wily Toronto Raptors would turn the Philadelphia 76ers into a stumbling, panicky bunch over the next two weeks.
Harden scoffed at the notion of pressure being on him, citing 13 years of playoff experience, almost similar to the eye-rolling GIF he made famous a few years ago. And Embiid has heard every piece of narrative spewed about matters concerning him and even the ones that have nothing to do with him.
That annoyance didn’t lead to two stars trying too hard or battling for a moment in the spotlight in the playoff opener Saturday, not allowing an anxious hometown crowd a moment to boo in fear of looming playoff disappointment.
The 76ers took a 1-0 lead over the Raptors with a convincing 131-111 win, jumping on the unorthodox Raptors and playing with as much cohesion as they have since the early days of the Harden acquisition.
The duo wasn’t first or second on the squad in terms of highest scorers, those honors belonging to Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris. But the attention from Toronto and the crowd in general was squarely on them.
“There’s always pressure but the reality is, it’s just pressure from the outside,” Harris said. “Every player has an idea of who they want to be and how they want to be on the floor. Those two guys — James, Joel, specifically — they put work in. They’re superstars for that reason. They want to be great. They do all the things to show that.”
The result of one game won’t change that, but the process could certainly aid in this team going further than expected.
Derisively nicknamed “The Dribbler” for his propensity to ground the game into dust, Harden turned into "The Spectator" when his teammate Maxey acted as if quicksand was underneath his feet — and the second-year guard managed to elude it.
Harden gladly played a background role, aiding Maxey when the blur got out in the open floor or at the very least, not disruptive when Maxey got it going in the second half. Twenty-one of Maxey’s season-high 38 points (one off his career high from last season) came in the third quarter, two of which occurred when Harden delivered a gorgeous bounce pass from 40 feet on a rope to Maxey, resulting in a reverse layup.
“I’m not fast at all; he is,” Harden said, without a hint of irony.
Maxey hit five triples, and Harris was uber-efficient with 26 points on just 14 shots, hitting three triples of his own.
After four days of nearly training camp basics leading to the series opener, 76ers coach Doc Rivers said he pared down his playbook to accommodate Harden, so he could know and deliver upon all the secondary actions through the offense.
Harden’s last 10 games looked ominous headed into Saturday: shooting just 37% from the field and 30% from 3-point range, averaging 19.6 points and 10.5 assists.
He didn’t necessarily break that streak, but Maxey and Harris nullified the need for Harden to be a 30-point scorer.
Harden had 14 assists against just one turnover and scored 22 points on 6-of-17 shooting. Starting series hasn’t been the focus for Harden in most of his postseason failures; it’s been how he finishes them.
But an underwhelming start would’ve been disastrous for someone with so much to play for. Sometimes, getting out of the way is the most valuable thing someone can do.
“It’s not all about scoring, it’s about doing the little things and making the right plays,” Harden said. “Tyrese got it going, and we gotta make sure he gets shots. I was being aggressive, they was helping and for him, getting to the paint. It was a great game."
Semi-retired boxer Floyd Mayweather’s courtside presence perfectly illustrated the “styles make fights” element of this series. Toronto doesn’t have a soul on its roster with the size of Embiid, instead employing a bunch of length to compensate for the girth. And forcing the 76ers into a hectic game, creating turnovers and doubt, would go a long way toward securing an upset.
Neither was accomplished Saturday.
By the time the 76ers committed their first turnover, it was a minute into the second half — and well on their way to a 24-point lead before the Raptors began fighting back. Fred VanVleet found some gold when he wasn’t in foul trouble, scoring 18. And Pascal Siakam is the matchup problem he was projected to be, leading the Raptors with 24 — likely needing more considering impressive rookie Scottie Barnes went down late in the second half with a left ankle injury.
Every time the Raptors made ground, Maxey single-handedly ran away with it. He adds an element of speed that’s so disparate from the deliberate approaches of Embiid and Harden, thus making him a perfect counter of sorts in terms of pace.
By the time he was putting the polish on his third-quarter performance, the chants of “Maxey, Maxey” were just as loud as the “MVP” chants for Embiid.
“He just doesn’t play with anxiety. That’s why you love him. There’s certain players like that. There’s not a lot that ruffles him,” Rivers said. “Got hit hard by an elbow today. I don’t know why he was going to try to fight that guy, I don’t think that would’ve gone well. But he got up. You could see everybody just telling him just be you, and he did that. It was really good to see that. Get over it and keep playing. I thought he did that.”
Maxey is expected to finish high in the Most Improved Player voting, looking like a much more confident and sure player than the last playoff run, when the 76ers were upset by the Atlanta Hawks in a shocking seventh-game collapse in the East semifinals last summer.
Embiid didn’t have Harden or Maxey the last time he faced a Nick Nurse outfit in the playoffs three years ago when Kawhi Leonard’s bounce, bounce, bounce-bounce sent Embiid to heartbreak in 2019. He’s more patient and undoubtedly more mature this time around.
Where he was once frustrated with double teams, Embiid accepts them and swings the ball, knowing his time will come to unleash his aggression on his terms. While he was just 5-of-15 for 19 points and 15 rebounds, he didn’t force the action and still bullied the Raptors on the glass, forcing early foul trouble for which Toronto never recovered.
Embiid will have to perform like an MVP before too long, and was in no mood to crow following the win — preferring to watch the subsequent Game 1 win by the Golden State Warriors over the Denver Nuggets during his news conference.
“Joel, the season he had. I don’t think he buys into outside pressure,” Harris said. “In reality, he has a standard for how he wants to play and the level he wants to be at and he strives for. You guys can build up whatever narrative you want. But for us, we have a statute for what we want to do.”
And for one night, the 76ers lived up to that statute.