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Joel Embiid, 76ers drop two straight tough tests to start season, but James Harden’s play a silver lining

PHILADELPHIA — In school, there were occasionally those teachers who would give a quiz within the first week of classes. Those quizzes weren’t necessarily indicative of how proficient the student would be in the subject when the end of the semester rolled around. Instead, they were used to understand where the student stood early on. If a student failed the quiz, it didn’t mean they would flunk the entire semester, but it did show that there was work to be done. 

Let’s extend that analogy to the 2022-23 NBA season. The Philadelphia 76ers had two straight tough tests to start their campaign against the past two Eastern Conference champions, and they failed them both. After dropping their season opener 126-117 to the Celtics in Boston on Tuesday night, the Sixers had their home opener against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night and came up short again, albeit barely. After rallying from a double-digit deficit in the second half, the Sixers lost by just two, 90-88. 

The Sixers played better against the Bucks than they did against the Celtics, who thoroughly outplayed them on both ends of the floor. That improvement wasn’t enough to avoid an 0-2 start to the season, though. In fairness to Philly, both the Celtics and Bucks have much more roster continuity this season than the Sixers, who are in the midst of incorporating several new pieces — P.J. Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House and Montrezl Harrell — and that was evident. Coach Doc Rivers is still ironing out rotations, and guys are still trying to get a feel for playing with each other on the floor.

“We lost two games. No moral victories,” Rivers said after the game. “You played two great teams. You knew from the day they released the schedule they were coming, and we have to expect to win these games, even while we’re still a work in progress.”

“We had two good teams to start the season. Just to size us up, to test us. We know we have work to do,” new Sixers forward Danuel House added. “We’re a hard-working group. We’re going to get it together and put the pieces together and sooner or later, [we’ll] get rolling.”  

Early areas of concern for Philadelphia include transition defense, ball control, and, most importantly, the play of their All-Star center. Joel Embiid hasn’t had a great start to the season. He’s connected on just two of his nine long-range attempts, and he turned the ball over a team-high 10 times. He was held scoreless in the second half against Milwaukee on Thursday night. Typically, Embiid leads Philadelphia in the plus/minus statistic, but he had the worst mark on the team in each of the first two games. He was also a step slow defensively on several occasions. He seemed to play much of the first two games with a general sense of malaise uncharacteristic of one of the most animated, boisterous players in the league. 

One might think that after finishing runner-up to Nikola Jokic in MVP voting for the second straight season, Embiid would come out with some added fire in his belly, but that hasn’t been the case so far. We didn’t get any insight into why that might potentially be the case, as Embiid left Wells Fargo Center without speaking to the media after the loss to Milwaukee. 

“He just didn’t have a great game,” Rivers said of his star center. “He’s human. He didn’t have one of his better games. He did a lot of other things for us.”

While Embiid’s play has been a bit concerning, James Harden’s production has been a silver lining to the team’s less-than-ideal start. After an offseason that consisted of endless speculation on whether or not Harden was “washed,” the former MVP has done his best to prove that he isn’t. After dropping 35 points on 14 shots in the first game of the season, Harden had 31 points and nine assists in his follow-up performance. He also grabbed eight rebounds in both games and shot a combined 57 percent from the field. 

More important than just the stats is how Harden has looked. He appears to have regained some of his burst after dealing with a lingering hamstring injury last season, and he’s been able to get his shot off with relative ease from all three levels. He has taken advantage of mismatches, broken down defenders, and created for himself and his teammates. 

While Harden has been pleased with his play on an individual level early this season, he obviously wants to see his production translate to team success. 

“For me, it’s not even about the individual,” Harden said. “Individual [play] is great, and I’ll do whatever it takes for the betterment of this team, but all of us need to be playing at a high level, and that’s a part of my job.”

Just like the student that got an ‘F’ on that early chemistry quiz, the Sixers aren’t doomed because they lost the first two games of the season to elite Eastern Conference contenders. But, if they want to avoid an ugly outcome at the end of the semester season, they have to be dedicated to improvement. Their ceiling as a team remains extremely high, but they’ve got a lot of growing to do before they reach it. 



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