Sixers’ Doc Rivers Demands More Respect for James Harden After Strong Performance

James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers

Getty James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers.

James Harden looked far from “cooked” on Tuesday night in his Philadelphia 76ers‘ regular-season debut. In fact, Harden was potentially the lone bright spot after lackluster play from Joel Embiid and the rest of the Sixers’ rotation.

On Tuesday, Harden erupted for 35 points, seven assists, and eight boards. But his scoring wasn’t enough to lift the Sixers, who fell to the Boston Celtics 126-117. The final score, though, downplays how far apart the two clubs looked on the hardwood. Philadelphia stumbled out of the gate, though the score remained knotted at 63 at the half. But the Celts pummelled the Sixers in the third quarter, putting the game out of reach.

Still, though, Harden’s excellent opener left head coach Doc Rivers excited about the future. The Sixers skipper was asked about the difference between this Sixers team and his championship-winning Celtics side from 2008.

“I would say the difference was that our three guys with the Celtics, their MVP years were over by then,” Rivers told Heavy Sports. “They were done with chasing that. They were more ready to win. Joel is still an MVP candidate every time he steps on the floor. James maybe not — or maybe. We’ll see.”

There are still 81 games left, but Harden certainly came out of the gate with a vengeance. If he puts together a season managing 30 points and ten assists, he should certainly be in the conversation.

But will Philadelphia? That’s another story entirely. And one ever-present problem once again reared its ugly head against Boston: the bench.

76ers Bench Comes Up Empty Against Boston

Last year, the Sixers’ bench was awful. Putrid. Pathetic. Second to all. So Philadelphia shrewdly planned the offseason accordingly, adding Danuel House, De’Anthony Melton, and Montrezl Harrell to bolster the second unit.

We’re still waiting for it to pay off.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia’s starters played an average of 35.8 minutes per player. That’s already up from the 33.42 minutes that last year’s starting five of Embiid, Harden, Maxey, Harris, and Thybulle played together. The other problem? Last year’s lineup swapped the aging Tucker for the far younger Thybulle. By contrast, Boston’s starting five averaged 32.2 minutes against Philadelphia. But that figure is also boosted by the 39 minutes each for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Three Celts managed at least 20 minutes off the bench compared to Philadelphia’s one.

The point of going out and investing in a deep bench was so that guys like Embiid, Tucker, and Harden could save the tread on their tires and stay fresh for the playoffs. We saw no Paul Reed, no Furkan Korkmaz, and just 23 seconds of Matisse Thybulle. The latter isn’t much of a surprise, but the first two were projected to be potentially key cogs in Philadelphia’s quest for the league’s top defense. It’s especially troubling after Thybulle and the Sixers failed to reach a contract extension before Monday, meaning the former Washington Huskie is headed for restricted free agency this summer.

While those bench unit minutes are troubling, equally scary is how inefficient the rotation guys played on Tuesday night.

Bench Unit Providing Little, Even in Limited Action

In fairness, the bench didn’t give Rivers much of a reason to keep them in. Harrell and House, two bench additions from the summer, combined for just three points in 27 minutes. In fact, the bench scored just 11 points total and provided two assists.

Folks, these are numbers so low I’m forced to actually spell out the numbers, per standard journalistic practice. It’s that bad.

Last year, the Sixers’ bench finished 27th in assists and 28th in scoring. Time will tell if this unit offers much more. On paper, it surely does. In practice, though? Chalk it up to first-game jitters. Or a bunch of new additions still learning to gel together. That’s fine on game one.

If things don’t change in two months? That’s a problem.

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