The atmosphere was electric; the welcome was hardy. On Wednesday, March 2, James Harden made his first appearance at the Wells Fargo Center wearing a No. 1 Sixers uniform. For the 21,333 fans on hand, it was a pinch-me moment. Rumors that the organization was interested in the 10-time all-star had circulated for more than a year. However, making this acquisition at the trade deadline seemed unattainable because a disgruntled Ben Simmons had painted the Sixers organization into a corner. And yet magically, March 2, 2022, arrived, and the sellout crowd was on their feet, expressing gratitude for what they hope is a pairing of two superstars, Harden and Joel Embiid, that lead them to multiple championships.
“It was a movie,” Harden said after the Sixers beat the Knicks on his home debut. “It was everything I expected it to be. Everyone knows how great these fans are; how passionate they are about their Sixers. It felt great to be out here. I tried to get the jitters out early, and I am just happy we came out with the win.”
The Sixers had been winning a lot before the Harden trade, mainly because Embiid was playing at an MVP level. Doc Rivers’ team was three games out of first place in the East the day they traded for Harden. And yet the addition of the 32-year-old point guard instantly bettered the odds that the 76ers would win this year’s NBA title. Harden did not immediately take the court once joining the fourth team of his 13-year career; he got acclimated over two weeks, including the NBA All-Star break. There would be 24 games for the new-look Sixers to find a consistent winning formula that will challenge the likes of Milwaukee, Miami, or dare we say, the Brooklyn Nets to the Eastern Conference this postseason.
“We want to be good, great, by the end of this,” Doc Rivers said. “We have to win games doing it. I’m not using that like it’s some secret. I never put too much on regular-season games because you never know what a team is going through regarding injury or schedule.
In other words, the head coach will be looking at his team and how they are improving. He will be studying their strengths and weaknesses to prepare for the second season when the stakes are higher and the competition stiffer.
Joel Embiid knows all too well that playing in May and June is significantly more challenging from the 82-game regular-season schedule. Last spring, he maintained his regular-season averages but still found himself at home after the conference semifinals. The memory of losing game seven to the fifth-seeded Hawks at the Wells Fargo Center has not faded. The group doesn’t rehash the experience; at the same time, no one wants a repeat performance. By adding Harden, the Sixers have upgraded their personnel in a way that has also boosted their confidence.
Embiid and his teammates, with No.1 in the mix, are counting on a collective focus being as good this spring as it was in Harden’s first five games in the Sixers lineup where the team went 5-0.
“We all just fit together,” Embiid described. “You have someone in James that comes in with experience, playmaking ability, as well as scoring ability. You combine that with what we have on the team, and it’s been amazing. As I said, it fits.”
“I think everybody’s mind is heading in the right direction,” Tyrese Maxey said. “Everybody has the same goal in mind, and we are stepping at the same pace. We all want to win, and that’s it. We want to play our best basketball moving forward.”
The excitement, expectation, and anticipation surrounding the 2022 Sixers have not been this high in 21 years. Unlike the 2001 team, who had an MVP in Allen Iverson, and a surrounding cast that knew their respective roles played them well, this team has two of the league’s top 20 talents, and Harden and Embiid bring out the best in each other. The play of this tandem draws you in; it is must-see TV every game day.
“People want to see greatness,” Matisse Thybulle shared. “Bringing a great player to a great team, and turning us into a serious contender; honestly, this addition turned us into a favorite in many people’s eyes. Philly has always ridden with us pretty hard, but having a championship being so tangible now, has upped that.”
The talent is here, with the proper mental approach in place. And the city has this team’s back. All everyone can do now is go through the experience of a long playoff run, enjoying an entertaining style of basketball that hopefully results in the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy parading down Broad Street in June.