76ers' Joel Embiid on James Harden: 'We Need Him to Be Aggressive and Really Score'

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured Columnist IVApril 14, 2022

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 7: James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers brings the ball up the floor with Joel Embiid #21 against the Toronto Raptors during the first half of their basketball game at the Scotiabank Arena on April 7, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
Mark Blinch/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors have traditionally been a tough matchup for Joel Embiid, throwing double- and even triple-teams his way in an effort to get the ball out of his hands. 

So Embiid knows he'll need to rely on his teammates when that happens, particularly his newest teammate, James Harden. As Embiid told reporters on Thursday, Harden will need to be aggressive looking to create his own offense against Toronto:

"I tell him to be himself. He's been doing a great job of being the playmaker, but we need him to be aggressive and really score the ball, especially against Toronto. With the way they guard me, we're going to need everybody. We're going to need Tyrese [Maxey] to be aggressive with all the attention that's going to be on me and James. Tyrese, Tobias [Harris], all the other guys, they have to make plays. He just has to be himself, and not worry about people talking about pressure. Whatever happened in the past, you look back at what he's accomplished and what he's done, he had to play against a dynasty. It would have been hard for anybody to beat those Golden State teams, so bad timing. But I'm sure it's going to be fine."

Embiid hasn't exactly struggled against Toronto this season, averaging 29 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and a block in three contests, shooting 46.6 percent from the field. But the Sixers, who went just 1-3 against the Raptors this season, were 1-2 with Embiid playing against them. 

The MVP candidate is going to get his, even if the Raptors do everything in their power to slow him down. The bigger question for the Sixers is who will carry the offense when the Raptors do force the ball away from Embiid. 

The logical call would be Harden, who proved to be one of the NBA's most talented and efficient scorers during his time with the Houston Rockets. 

In Philadelphia, however, Harden has been more of a playmaker than a scorer, averaging 10.5 assists per game. He's still putting up a solid 21 points per game as well in Philly, though it would represent his lowest scoring average since the 2011-12 season. His 40.2 shooting percentage and 30.2 three-point percentage during his 21 games in Philly would each be career lows compared to his previous season averages. 

That has naturally led to one major question: Is Harden simply adjusting to new teammates and finding his way in a new scheme, or has the 32-year-old lost a step and less capable of scoring at an elite level?

The Sixers are banking on the former, and that a full week off before the playoffs will help rejuvenate him for a deep run. Sixers fans are hoping that Harden was simply keeping some fuel in reserves toward the end of the regular season after his heavy workload during the Houston years often appeared to leave him worn out by the postseason. 

"It's good," Harden told reporters on Thursday when asked about a lingering hamstring issue. "I've actually been doing some sprints and some hamstring work this week, so it's a really good week to prepare myself for this first round."

If Harden simply has lost a step, however, it will not only be a major blow for the Sixers' title hopes but will leave them in a precarious spot going forward. After trading Ben Simmons for Harden this season, letting him walk for nothing as a free agent would be tough to justify, but paying him a massive supermax deal would leave them financially hamstrung in the years to come. 

It's all a moot point if Harden is back to his old scoring ways in the postseason. So the stakes are high, even if Harden isn't feeling the pressure. 

"Pressure, no. I feel good," he told reporters Thursday. "I'm ready to hoop. There's nothing to it."