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NEW YORK — After two games playing alongside James Harden, it took a single word for Joel Embiid to describe how he felt about the way the two superstars are fitting together in the Philadelphia 76ers‘ offense.
“Unstoppable,” Embiid said with a smile after finishing with 37 points — including 23 free throws made on 27 attempts (the most attempts by any player in a single game in nearly three years). He also added nine rebounds and four blocked shots in Philadelphia’s 125-109 victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon.
“What are you really going to do?” Embiid said. “He’s a great passer, and obviously I’ve got someone [next to me] that attracts a lot of attention to him, so you’ve got to make a decision. Do you stay on me, or do you stay on him? And if you want to guard both of us with the other guys, now you’ve got Matisse [Thybulle] diving to the rim or wide-open shooters that have got one job to do, and that’s make shots. That’s all we got to keep doing.
“Like I was saying in the locker room, I’m happy I don’t have to post up every single possession, so it’s great.”
Through those first two games, the results are hard to argue with. Philadelphia has averaged 129 points per game — even after shooting 10-for-33 from 3-point range Sunday — and Embiid and Harden are, predictably, making regular trips to the foul line. The two combined for 22 free throw attempts in Friday’s 133-102 win in Minneapolis over the Timberwolves, and had 37 Sunday against the Knicks. Harden was a perfect 10-for-10 from the line.
Embiid got to the line more than anyone since Anthony Davis also shot 27 free throws in an October 2019 game against the Memphis Grizzlies. It got to the point on Sunday where both New York centers, Mitchell Robinson and Jericho Sims, fouled out by the early stages of the fourth quarter.
“That’s our job every single night, is to put pressure on that rim,” said Harden, who had 29 points, 10 rebounds and 16 assists to post his first triple-double as a 76er. “That creates opportunities for ourselves and our teammates. There’s a lot of opportunities Joel had with and-1s where he just didn’t convert, but that pressure night-in and night-out consistently is going to be tough for teams to cover.”
It has taken no time at all for Harden and Embiid to find a rhythm in the pick-and-roll. While Embiid has never preferred to be a roll man in two-man actions — something Tyrese Maxey gave him a hard time about when Embiid was asked about it after Sunday’s game — he had plenty of success with it against the Knicks.
The big man liked how he mixed up both rolling to the rim and popping to the 3-point line through the first two games, and said part of the reason he was willing to roll as much as he did Sunday was because he struggled to hit shots from the perimeter.
“I thought I mixed it up pretty well the last two games. Tonight I obviously didn’t make any shots from the outside like I usually do,” said Embiid, who went 0-for-4 from behind the arc. “Against Minnesota I had a couple rolls, half rolls and pops where I made shots, so it’s all about really figuring out by the feel, and tonight I felt like their bigs, they were either too high or too aggressive, so it gave me a free lane to attack the basket, which caused them to foul a lot.
“But it’s all about mixing. Sometimes it depends on how they’re guarding, sometimes I’m gonna pop, sometimes I’m gonna roll, but like I said, he attracts so much attention so you can’t go wrong with both choices. If that night I’m making a lot of outside shots, I’m probably going to pop a lot, and then tonight I just saw I could get to the free throw line really whenever I wanted. That’s why I was so aggressive.”
Philadelphia’s first two opponents, Minnesota and New York, certainly were good ones for the 76ers to begin this superstar experiment against. Minnesota fouls more than any team in the league, while the Knicks are tied for the seventh-most fouls per game, and both teams have mediocre defensive units. But that doesn’t change the fact that, through two games, the 76ers have been as dominant — particularly offensively — as they could’ve hoped for.
Much of that, not surprisingly, is down to the two-man game of Embiid and Harden. But one of the immediate beneficiaries of it has been second-year guard Maxey, who had a second straight strong game of his own.
Maxey finished with 21 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals Sunday, including going 3-for-5 from 3-point range. He said he’s thrilled to have the chance to play alongside a pair of superstars in Harden and Embiid.
“It’s … I have no words for it,” Maxey said. “[Opposing teams] can’t do anything. If they don’t foul them, they’re going to score. So, I mean, it’s amazing to play with guys like that.
“I’ve been saying it all year, playing with Joel, I try not to take it for granted because you just never know. Playing with guys like this is extremely special, playing with a former MVP and a guy up here who I think is the MVP this year, the big fella next to me, so I just don’t take it for granted and I just try to go out and help.”
And after his first two games in a Philadelphia uniform, and with a rematch against the Knicks coming Wednesday in what will be Harden’s home debut with the 76ers, the 10-time All-Star said his body is feeling good after missing three weeks because of hamstring tightness.
“I feel good,” Harden said. “It’s my second game in damn near a month, but just my body feels great, man. Feels great. I haven’t felt this way in a really, really long time. So just my pop, me getting to the rim, my extra step, feels really great. So just got to continue to work, continue to build my body and legs and keep pushing.”