Free Throw-a-Palooza: Observations from Sixers 125, Knicks 109

Photo Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers are 2-0 in the James Harden era. Will they ever lose again?

Yeah, of course, but these first two games were pretty impressive. How can you not be excited? They’ve hardly scratched the surface for potential but have so far strung together a 29 point road win and a 16 point road win. There have been stretches where they haven’t even played amazing basketball, but they’re marching to the free throw line at will, and from an outside perspective, they just look like a total pain in the ass to play against. James Harden handling the ball and drawing fouls? Joel Embiid bulldozing his way to the rim? Tyrese Maxey buzzing around, looking like Tony Parker? Tobias Harris playing the role of 4th man? Matisse Thybulle being a perimeter terror?

Add it all up and you have to feel really good about what we’ve seen so far. I know it’s just the Knicks and the Timberwolves, but it’s less about the wins they’ve ripped off, and more about how they’re doing it, starting with:

Free throws

Let me go back and find a tweet from a few weeks ago:

This was actually off base. They’re gonna get to the line even more than we thought. In this one they combined for 37 foul shots and hit 34 of them. Harden was 10-10 and Embiid was 23-27.

That’s a career high in single-game free throw attempts for Embiid. He’s now averaging 11.3 per game and that number looks to be going up as he receives these pick and roll pocket passes and early transition looks from Harden. Perhaps it’s a separate post for later this week, but Harden just finds these guys in stride and puts these passes right on the money every single time, and they’ve got whip on them too. They get there quickly. Guys don’t have to adjust or slow down. Numerous times in this win, Embiid scooped up these passes in a continuous motion on his way to the basket.

”Now you’re rolling the big guy down the middle and it’s really difficult to come help and that’s when we got him rolling and getting all those fouls,” Doc Rivers said after the game. 

Both teams combined for 79 free throws in this game. 79! I’m not even sure UConn and Syracuse shot 79 free throws in that six-overtime Big East hack-a-thon at Madison Square Garden however-many years ago that was. I think Gerry McNamara played in that game. One of my original thoughts was that the foul shooting was going to be incredibly boring, but now that we’re witnessing it in real time, it’s actually impressive how good Embiid and Harden are at it. And we’re not talking ticky-tack Trae Young shit, because they changed that rule this summer, we’re talking downhill attacking and body control and just being hard to guard in general.

Hope you’re ready for foul shooting, because it’s gonna be the Sixers’ bread and butter in this era.

Consistent closing

This was a tight fourth quarter game, tied at 100 with nine minutes on the clock, and then the Sixers blew it wide open with a 25-9 run down the stretch.

Before Harden, the Sixers were mostly closing through Embiid, who would iso on the perimeter or post up and try to make something happen. Now they’ve got legitimate spacing everywhere on the floor with non-big iso threat and a legit pick and roll ball handler. They’ve got Maxey and Harris standing there, ready to shoot or attack close outs. It feels like I’m living in a different universe with some of these closing possessions:

In that first part of the clip, R.J. Barrett isn’t sure whether to go over or under the screen. Embiid moves to roll, and Harden has enough space to just fire an open three pointer. With the second play, there’s a double off a Thybulle screen, and Harden makes the next pass with ease. Then in the third sequence, it’s a double action, with Thybulle slipping the first screen and Embiid popping off the second screen. New York blows the rotation and Thybulle has a dunk.

“What are you really gonna do?” Embiid said of Harden’s added presence. “He’s a great passer and, obviously, I got someone that attracts a lot of attention so you gotta make a decision. Do you stay on me or do you stay on him? If you wanna guard both of us with the other guys now, you got Matisse diving to the rim or wide-open shooters that got one job to do and that is to make shots. That’s all we gotta keep doing.”

Harden is a very calming presence as a late-game ball handler. He rarely looks flustered and typically picks out the right pass. That’s gonna do wonders for a team that sometimes looked out of whack in clutch time and would play a more frenetic game. It’s a massive improvement.

16 assists!

Harden tied a season high with 16 assists in this game. 16! Ben Simmons’ season high last year was 15, playoffs included.

Here’s most of them. There were so many assists that I couldn’t fit them into the 2:20 maximum time allowed by Twitter:

Look at some of the stuff he’s throwing: Pick and roll dimes for easy dunks. A transition behind-the-back layoff for a dunk. Early shot clock second-side chest passes. Pocket stuff thrown right into the bread basket, now for a rolling Embiid.

“We are very comfortable,” Harden said of playing with Embiid (via Ky Carlin at USA Today). “He likes to pop, he likes to roll, he likes to mix it in a little bit, so as long as we continue that communication like ‘this play is this, this play is that,’ things will be great. I know a couple plays, I’m just out there winging it, honestly, and just trying to make the best decision in terms of my playmaking ability each possession.”

Harden has fantastic vision and only turned the ball over three times on Sunday. Two games for the Sixers, 28 assists, and five turnovers. 28 to 5 is a 5.6 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is astronomical. Small sample size, but still.

Other notes:

  • Tobias Harris couldn’t hit anything early, but finished with 12/5/2. He’s gonna get plenty of open looks and needs to hit ’em.
  • What more can you say about Tyrese Maxey? 21 points on 14 shots, seven rebounds, three assists. He looks great playing off the ball.
  • If Thybulle continues to cut the way he is right now, he can absolutely be on the floor in crunch time. If the three-pointer ever develops, watch out.
  • Paul Millsap at the five? Let’s explore our other options.
  • More staggering from Doc in this one. He’ll figure out how to pair two of Harden/Embiid/Maxey/Harris together with some experimentation.

Have a fantastic Monday.