“Pressure, no. I feel good,” Harden said with a smile after Thursday’s practice at the team’s facility. “I’m ready to hoop. There’s nothing to it.”
Harden will need to be against the Raptors, who gave him fits in the two meetings between the two teams following the blockbuster trade that saw him come to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons back in February. Across those two games — both five-point losses for the 76ers, and both of which came with Toronto All-Star Fred VanVleet and forward OG Anunoby watching in street clothes — Harden shot a combined 8-for-24 from the field and 1-for-8 from 3-point range while committing nine turnovers.
When asked what makes Toronto a tough matchup, Harden said it came down to the Raptors’ activity and togetherness defensively — not to mention having a roster full of long-limbed athletes.
“They just fly around,” Harden said. “They play extremely hard. They kind of junk up the game. They have a lot of guys that are tall, athletic, long and solid defenders. They use their length very well, and they just have each other’s back. They run around, they scramble, and they fly around defensively, so for us we have to execute, making sure we’re crisp in our passes and if the shot’s available, take it.”
That also, however, will require Harden to play at the level Philadelphia hoped he would when the Sixers acquired him — that of a top-level star who can win playoff games. Philadelphia’s other superstar, Joel Embiid, said he already knows what Toronto’s game plan is going to be: throwing double- and triple-teams at him to get the ball out of his hands and require his teammates to step up and make plays instead.
He said he’s totally fine with that, and as a result, he’s not going into this series looking to score, but instead make sure his teammates are involved.
“I’m not going into this series looking to average 40,” Embiid said. “They’re going to get the ball out of my hands. So it’s all about me really not getting frustrated and trusting my teammates over and over and just making the right plays. Doesn’t matter if it’s 10, 20 points or whatever, so long as we’re scoring, that’s my mentality, and it starts with me. All the attention they’re going to throw at me, I just have to make my teammates better.”
That includes Harden, who Embiid said needs to block out the noise about his prior playoff struggles. Harden’s career has featured several rough playoff exits, including a Game 6 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in 2017 and a Game 7 loss to the Golden State Warriors the following year, both at home.
But Embiid said his co-star just needs to be himself, and let everything else take care of itself.
“I tell him to be himself. He’s been doing a great job of being the playmaker, but we need him to be aggressive and really score the ball, especially against Toronto,” Embiid said. “With the way they guard me, we’re going to need everybody. We’re going to need Tyrese [Maxey] to be aggressive with all the attention that’s going to be on me and James. Tyrese, Tobias [Harris], all the other guys, they have to make plays. He just has to be himself, and not worry about people talking about pressure. Whatever happened in the past, you look back at what he’s accomplished and what he’s done, he had to play against a dynasty. It would have been hard for anybody to beat those Golden State teams, so bad timing. But I’m sure it’s going to be fine.”
What else seems fine is that both Harden and Embiid are going into the playoffs healthy. Embiid said he wasn’t “fully healthy,” but that he’s feeling good, while Harden said the lingering hamstring issues that have dogged him since last season aren’t an issue at the moment.
“It’s good,” Harden said. “I’ve actually been doing some sprints and some hamstring work this week, so it’s a really good week to prepare myself for this first round.”