PHILADELPHIA — James Harden feels more at home in Philly this postseason go-around than he did a year when he was still finding his footing after a trade. It helps that The Beard knows his role alongside Joel Embiid, has his health, — and his signature step-back is back on point from beyond the arc.
“He’s confident in how we play now,” coach Doc Rivers said. “Last year, even when he was playing, it was, am I doing the right thing here?”
Harden had all the right moves against the Nets.
MAN ON A MISSION pic.twitter.com/0wPHtjlySu
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) April 15, 2023
Harden hit seven 3-pointers and had 23 points and 13 assists, NBA MVP finalist Embiid scored 26 points and the Philadelphia 76ers pushed back Mikal Bridges and the Brooklyn Nets in a 121-101 Game 1 victory on Saturday.
Tobias Harris added 21 points and the 76ers hit a postseason team-record 21 3s in the opener of this Eastern Conference playoff series. The Sixers are trying to win their first NBA championship since 1983 and advance past the second round for the first time since 2001.
The No. 3-seeded 76ers host Game 2 on Monday.
Bridges scored 30 points and helped the Nets at least hang around in the first half.
But Brooklyn’s starless roster was no match for Embiid, Harden and a playoff-tested roster expected to make a deep run in the postseason. The Sixers had a sellout crowd of 20,913 in a frenzy from the opening tip, then blew the game open in the fourth.
Philly got it done even without a vintage effort from Embiid.
Embiid made only 7 of 15 shots (and all 11 free throws) and was flustered at times against double-teams that followed him all over the court. Embiid was smacked in the face on a missed dunk that sent him crashing to the court in an attempt to draw a flagrant foul. Embiid got heated when he had his arm locked up by Royce O’Neale and the two briefly tussled.
The off-night from the floor wasn’t good enough for Nets coach Jacque Vaughn.
“Hopefully, they’ll be calling traveling and 3 seconds on the big fella the next game,” Vaughn said.
No worries for the Sixers, though. Harden, who topped the league in assists this season, picked up the slack and stuck it to the Nets with his step-back 3s.
“I couldn’t make a layup,” the 33-year-old Harden said with a laugh. “But that’s the least of my worries. My legs, my body feels just powerful, feels strong.”
Harden’s ineffectiveness around the rim in the first half — he was 1 of 8 on 2s — was offset by his 5-of-7 shooting on 3s. He buried two 3s late against his former team in the second quarter that stretched the lead to double digits.
“He looked great from 3,” Embiid said.
Embiid, the NBA scoring champion, could not impose his will against Brooklyn as he had this season to become an MVP finalist. He only took seven shots in the first half.
Unlike the regular season, when the Sixers were crushed by the non-Embiid minutes, the reserves came through. De’Anthony Melton, Jalen McDaniels and Georges Niang all hit 3s — the 76ers made 13 of 21 in the half — to keep them in control of Game 1.
Bridges kept Game 1 from becoming an early rout in a homecoming effort.
Bridges attended Great Valley High School in Malvern, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, then played three seasons at Villanova. Bridges helped the Wildcats win two national championship — the 2016 and 2018 national championship banners hang in the Wells Fargo Center rafters. Bridges seemed he would stay in the area when he was drafted by the 76ers with the No. 10 pick in the 2018 draft.
Then came a pair of embarrassments in rapid succession: Bridges celebrated on draft night with his mom, who worked at the time for the 76ers. The feel-good reunion lasted about 15 minutes and Bridges was traded to Phoenix for Zhaire Smith. Bridges is now a bona fide NBA star while Smith flamed out after only 13 career NBA games.
Philly fans can only imagine Bridges in this lineup.
He made 10 of 16 shots for 23 points in the first half and kept the Nets, who opened the season with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and championship aspirations, within nine at halftime.
“It feels good to make some shots,” Bridges said. “But I’d rather miss shots and win. It’s whatever.”