While 76ers race for East’s top seed, Doc Rivers says “We’re just not there yet”

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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.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.