When Milwaukee travels to Philadelphia tonight (Tuesday), it’s a showdown of teams that see themselves as contenders and are fighting for playoff seeding at the top of the East (yet not a game broadcast on TNT because… the 31-43 Lakers are on).
Well, the Bucks see themselves as contenders, a team flipping the switch heading into the postseason.
The 76ers look like a team still finding their footing since the James Harden trade. Don’t take my word for it, ask Doc Rivers.
“We’re just not there yet,” River said last Friday.
In the 76ers’ last 10 games — of which Harden has played in nine — they are 6-4 with a pedestrian +0.3 net rating and an offense ranked 18th in the league over that stretch. The eye test backs that up, they have been good but not great. Philadelphia is not striking fear into the hearts of other contenders out of the East, as their offense still feels disjointed for stretches and the defense has clear places opponents can attack.
“We have to improve as a team on both ends,” Rivers said. “Our pace has to improve offensively, our spacing has to improve offensively, continuity has to improve offensively. Defensively, our transition is getting better actually — it could only go one way since we were 29th [in the league] — we’re rebounding a little bit better, but there are things we have to do better.
“We have to be a better team defense. We don’t have a ton of great individual defenders. I’ve had teams where you could do both, just shut down guys, four or five of them on a team. We’re not that team. We really have to be a great team defense.”
Philly GM Daryl Morey bet that MVP candidate Joel Embiid and former MVP James Harden, with some shooting around them, would combine to create an overwhelming offense. Rivers suggested Harden and Embiid are playing like a USA Olympic team in the first days of training camp, when the best players in the world are overly deferential to each other.
“No, not yet,” Rivers said when asked if Harden had put his imprint on the team yet. “He will. He’s had spurts, but we got to get out of that from spurts to consistent, where he’s dominant and Joel is dominant.”
It looked like that for the first four games Harden played with Embiid — he scored at least 25 points and had at least nine assists in each game, and their pick-and-roll was tearing teams apart. The problem was, the defenses they were tearing apart were the Knicks and an injured and stumbling Cavaliers.
Over his last five games, Harden is scoring 21.6 points a game but on 38.6% shooting overall and 31.3% from 3, and his offensive rating in those games is 3.5 points below his season average.
Still, there are signs of the threat Embiid and Harden can be.
When Harden and Embiid share the court, the 76ers have a +12.7 net rating this season. The 76ers preferred starting five — Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Harden, Tobias Harris, and Embiid — is +19.7 per 100.
Rivers sees the players around Harden and Embiid figuring out how to play better with them.
“Well, I think outside of [Harden and Embiid], Tobias [Harris] is getting more and more comfortable. You can see it, he’s patient, he’s waiting for his spots, when he gets them, he’s aggressive, he’s taking them,” Rivers said after his team beat the Clippers last Friday. “I think he’s really starting to shoot the ball well and be comfortable in the roll. I also think [his teammates] seeing what he can do. A couple times the Clippers made a run and I didn’t call it, they called the post-up play for Tobias, so that tells you where everyone is growing.”
“Each game has been a new learning process; each game is new opportunity,” Thybulle said of playing with Harden. “Something different getting thrown at us and yeah, I think each time we get out there we get more and more comfortable with each other and I’m learning how to play with and around James [Harden] and just how this new offense is kind of rolling.”
“Our focus is just on getting better every single day. Finding ways to get better every single day. Whether it’s offensively or defensively. We’re not worried about the standings,” Embiid said. “We just want to get to a point where we know what we’re doing at all times on the court; especially on the offensive side. That’s what we’ve been working on. That’s what Coach [Rivers] has been on us about; focusing on the details.”
The Sixers have a couple of weeks — plus up to a week of rest between the season and playoffs while the play-in games take place — to get those details right.
There will be no easy rounds in the East. Two of the four teams bunched within a game of each other at the top of the conference — the Heat, Celtics, 76ers and Bucks — will face Kevin Durant and Brooklyn or a very spicy Raptors team in the first round. There will be no easing into the postseason in the East this year.
The 76ers need to be fully functioning contenders by then. Or Daryl Morey’s bet will look like a far riskier one.