Sixers Star Unfazed by Outside Noise Heading Into Playoffs

Joel Embiid James Harden

Getty James Harden (left) and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Following the trade deadline, the Philadelphia 76ers‘ expectations for this season drastically changed. With James Harden on his way to play alongside MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid, Philly was instantly thrown into the conversation of teams who can make a run at the NBA title.

As expectations rise, so does the pressure. But Harden dismissed the idea while talking to reporters after the Sixers’ April 14 practice.

“Pressure? No,” Harden said. “I feel good, I’m ready to hoop. There’s nothing to it.”

Still, there may be no player with more to prove than Harden when the Sixers host the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs on April 16.

ESPN’s Tim Legler said he “can’t fathom” the notion that Harden is not under pressure to  help the Sixers get out of the first round against the fifth-seeded Raptors.

“He’s going to feel it in a level of accountability and scrutiny like he has never experienced if he comes up small, particularly in this series,” Legler said on the April 14 episode of “First Take.” With everything they went through to get to this point, if he does not deliver and get them to at least the next round, he’s never going to deal with anything like he’s ever dealt with.”

Harden in the Right Frame of Mind

Harden appears to be in a good place, both mentally and physically.

When asked about the health of his hamstring, Harden shrugged off concerns about it.

“No, it’s good,” he told reporters. “I’ve actually been doing some sprints and some hamstring work this week, so it’s really good for me to be able to prepare myself for this first round.”

After missing eight games in February with a hamstring injury, Harden returned on February 25 against the Minnesota Timberwolves and missed only three games during the remaining six weeks of the season. He played no fewer than 28 minutes a game during that stretch. Since acquiring Harden, the Sixers have gone 14-7 in games in which he’s played.

By the time the Sixers and Raptors meet on April 16, Harden will have had a whole week to rest up, his first extended break since being forced to integrate himself on the fly upon being traded to the Sixers from the Brooklyn Nets on February 10.

After Philadelphia president of basketball operations Daryl Morey gave up Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks to get Harden, the expectations for the Sixers to make a run at the title became increasingly lofty, with all eyes on Harden, who has not won an NBA title in his 13 years in the league. The Sixers have not won an NBA title since 1983 and have not advanced past the conference semifinals since 2001.

Harden Is Sixers’ Biggest Playoff X-Factor

Come playoff time, the term “X-factor” is thrown around a lot. Of all the players on the Sixers, there is no bigger X-factor than Harden. How he performs has the potential to make-or-break Philly’s championship aspirations.

The Sixers pushed all in and landed Harden because of his fit next to NBA scoring leader Joel Embiid. For the first time since Jimmy Butler’s one-year tenure with Sixers, the team has a legitimate second option next to its franchise cornerstone. Embiid has dominated most matchups this year en route to a legitimate shot at winning the league’s MVP award. The question now becomes: Will Harden elevate his game and aid the All-Star center in leading the charge for the Sixers.

We’ve seen glimpses of how lethal the Sixers can be when Harden is clicking on all cylinders. If he can find the right balance in the playoffs, they will be a very tough team to take down in a seven-game series.

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