The Philadelphia 76ers need James Harden to carry them, but can he?

There are few things in the NBA that are more precious than time and space. Four years ago, it seems Philadelphia 76ers there are countless of both when they face Miami Heat in the playoff series in the first round with a strange setup similar to Game 1 on the second night of the Eastern Conference semifinals: Superstar Center Joel Embiid suffered an orbital fracture and hopefully his teammates can stretch the streak long enough for him to return to action with a custom mask.

Ben Simmons was Embiid’s sidekick in 2018, when the young duo had a decade ahead of them figuring out how to repay “The Process,” the radical vision of then-Sixers general manager Sam. Hinkie on building championship teams.

The Heat are in the opposite situation, lacking in both time and space, and trying to squeeze out one last playoff turn with aging. Dwyane Wade before rebuilding around a rookie on the team named Bam Adebayo.

Four years later, a lot has changed.

Miami’s Win 106-92 meeting Philadelphia on Monday at the FTX Arena isn’t just an expression of how far the top seeded Heat have come in their reboot, it’s just the little time and space this group of Sixers has left. to find out how to become the opponent champion.

Simmons is with brooklyn network now, still dealing with the consequences of his time under the heat lamp of the expectations that come with being the face of the Progress era Sixers.

His replacement, 2018 MVP James Hardenessentially suffocated from lack of space on Monday night while trying to make space for the injured Embiid while he and his teammates missed more than 82% of 3-pointers (28 misses). in 34 attempts) that they made against Heat.

There will be more to Harden’s lack of influence in Game 1. He finished with 16 points on a 5/13 shot, continuing a streak of being kept below 25 points to 11 consecutive playoffs, the longest since he came on from the bench for Oklahoma City Thunder to start his career.

Harden, 32, notably struggled to get past defenders during his time in Philadelphia, and it has raised questions around the league: Did he miss a step? Is his injured hamstring still an issue? Can he bounce back in time to justify a $223 million max contract extension this summer?

Once Embiid was lost indefinitely to concussion and orbital fracture in game 6 of Philadelphia’s first series, victory over Toronto RaptorsThe time pressure on the questions surrounding Harden increased rapidly.

But Monday night’s dismal performance felt like a referendum on the dire state the Sixers find themselves in without Embiid nor Harden’s current ability, because he really isn’t. space to operate.

According to ESPN Stats & Info data, 12 of Harden’s 13 scoring attempts were disputed. He has also been dual-teamed nine times.

The average nearest defender on Harden’s shooting attempts is 3.7 feet, according to Second Spectrum; it is the third smallest gap in a game for Harden this season and the smallest amount in a playoff for Harden in two years.

If you’ve followed Harden’s career even a little, you know why this is a problem: He needs space to operate. He can produce some shots on his own, even without the explosiveness he once had, but not when the defense has no reason to respect his teammates’ shots.

“I think I could be a little more aggressive,” Harden said when asked what he could improve on in the future. “They did a great job of being just boxes and elbows, showing off their bodies and pressing the ball when the games came.

“But I think taking the shot is what opens the door for our whole team.”

The actual way in which Harden makes that assessment is as important as the order in which he clearly diagnoses what happened to Philadelphia in Game 1.

First, he blames himself. He then credited the Heat’s defence. Then he said the really important part without throwing any of his teammates directly under the bus.

That’s the bright side of the Sixers: To have any chance of returning to the series, they’ll need Harden to demonstrate responsibility and leadership.

“It’s a game, but things can happen quickly,” said Harden, who is trying to hear an upbeat note for a relatively young dressing room he has been pushed into the lead with Embiid go out.

And there is some optimism Embiid may return at some point in this seriesBut that’s mainly because he’s been determined to work through injury and pain this season.

Embiid at home in Philadelphia was still dealing with concussion symptoms on Monday, sources told ESPN. To even think about playing again, he would have to go through NBA concussion procedures and then receive a good report of a right orbital fracture by appointment. Wednesday, the day of Game 2 in Miami.

If all goes well, sources say there’s a chance Embiid could play in Game 3 or 4 in Philadelphia wearing a custom protective mask. That’s what happened in 2018, when Embiid’s return in Game 3 turned out to be a five-game streak winning the Heat and calling himself the Ghost of Progress.

But while the situation is similar this year, the feeling is completely different.

Everything seemed to open up before Philadelphia’s eyes at that time. Their two superstars are young and still growing up together.

There’s a sense of urgency right now that Embiid is at his prime and Harden is trying to hold onto what’s left of him. There’s also a weight that wasn’t there before, because of all that happened along the way.

There’s still time to figure it out. There is still space to create. But now there is a lot less.

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