Harden aiming to ‘hit singles' this season, wouldn't mind a meaner Maxey


The Sixers start their regular season Tuesday night in Boston about 30 minutes before the Phillies begin their National League Championship Series against the Padres.

James Harden won’t be preoccupied with three-run homers. 

“I’m just happy to be out there, fresh and new season, and an opportunity to be the last team standing,” Harden said after the Sixers’ practice Monday at the team's facility in Camden, New Jersey. “For us, I think it’s within this locker room, within this organization, continuing to get better every single day. 

“We try to hit singles. Singles, singles, singles and ultimately, we’ve got a finished product at the end of the season.”

There’s always a sizable spotlight on Harden, even when he’s next to a 7-footer who’s finished second in MVP voting the last two seasons. With questions about his left hamstring no longer central, a popular topic to ponder ahead of the Sixers' opening-night meeting with the Celtics has been whether the 33-year-old Harden can both score and facilitate well enough for the Sixers to make a playoff breakthrough. 

Given that bread and butter was very tasty last season, head coach Doc Rivers has been reminding his stars they won’t often need to stray from the basics. Lineups with Harden and Joel Embiid were in the 99th percentile for offensive rating (124.1) last regular season, per Cleaning the Glass. 

Harden’s personal outlook is straightforward. 

“For me, I think it’s fairly easy,” he said. “I think it’s just me having an attack mindset and an aggressive mindset, for the most part. Me trying to get into the paint and me being aggressive, whether it’s passing or it’s scoring, that’ll make it easy. Just be in attack mode for the full 48 minutes and good things will happen.”

Still, regular catch-and-shoot chances aren’t known to be in Harden’s wheelhouse. 

Embiid, who led the league in scoring last year, needs touches. And once he has the ball, few opponents will dare to defend him 1-on-1. The Sixers expect Embiid to continue drawing double teams and continue improving as a passer against them. His 0.63 assist-to-usage ratio and 11.5 turnover percentage in the 2021-22 campaign were each career bests. 

“It’s different for me, but last season I got a little glimpse of it,” Harden said. “This offseason I tried a little bit at playing off the ball, making sure I’m ready to catch and shoot and play off the catch a little more than I normally do. But obviously we all know how unique he is, how skilled of a 7-footer (he is). 

“As big as he is, to not only score the basketball but also draw so much attention, there’s only a handful of bigs in this league — or maybe even in the history of the NBA — that are as skilled as he is. I think for us, it’s putting all that together, whether it’s posting up or our pick-and-rolls, and attacking in the paint. And just creating a lot of shots for each individual. It’ll make our offense better and it’ll help our defense, as well.”

Though the Sixers went 4-0 in exhibition play, veterans like Harden and P.J. Tucker know preseason results don’t truly matter. 

As for practice, all accounts suggest Tucker’s approach has not been casual at all. 

“If you had to go up against P.J. Tucker and box him out every day, you’d be anxious to go up against somebody else, let me tell you,” Georges Niang said with a laugh. “The ice bath has been a really good friend of mine, going up against him.” 

Tucker underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee this summer. He acknowledged Sunday that the knee is “still not 100 percent yet,” though the 37-year-old didn’t sound concerned about his health heading into the season.

“It’s just a progression of getting it as strong as possible,” he said. “It’s still better than it was last year. I played with that all year last year. Just getting back to normal, it’s going to take time, and I know that. So it’s just keep working.”

Of course, work always seems more joyful when Tyrese Maxey’s around. 

“Being an older guy now, I love seeing the young guys come in,” Tucker said on Oct. 7. “He doesn’t even stretch or nothing. He just comes out and is running up and down the court, flying around.

“I love it, man. He’s just full of energy, man. He’s always all happy and smiley and just ready to play. And he loves playing. To get that energy from the young guys, it makes me feel young.” 

Harden gained a deeper sense of Maxey's constant cheeriness through their offseason workouts. 

“Man, I’m probably the mean guy on the court for our team," Harden said. “He’s just so nice, man. He’s just smiling. It’s like, ‘Tyrese, get mad one time!’ I think he got mad in our last preseason game. He got pushed or something and they didn’t call a foul. He was pissed. I need more of that.

“You’re a nice guy, but you’re not under the radar anymore. People know how good you are right now and the potential that you have, so people are going to start pushing you around. ... But all in all, he’s a really good kid. He works his butt off and we’re looking for big things out of him.”

More Maxey progress and sensational chemistry with Harden from the jump would clearly be fantastic for the Sixers.

Still, singles would indeed get the job done. 

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