James Harden knows exactly what the Sixers need from him in heavy bench formations

When the Sixers avoided disaster during Joel Embiid’s tenure on the bench, there was often palpable relief.

Friday night, there was frank dizziness.

The team’s lead over the Mavericks swelled as Embiid sat early in the fourth quarter, removing the usual suspense about when head coach Doc Rivers would reinstate his big star. In the end, the Sixers edged out Dallas by five points in 13 minutes of DeAndre Jordan and took a comfortable win over a team that had won 10 of their last 12 games.

James Harden made it happen.

“It was great, but I still needed to be aggressive,” Harden said of his 8-2 start with the Sixers. “I think tonight was a sign of that. I still need to be in attacking mode and look forward to scoring basketball, because that’s what I do,” Harden said of his 8-2 start with the Sixers. Just trying to find a balance…when to become a playmaker.

“And I think tonight, especially in that fourth quarter, I’m attacking, attacking, attacking, playmaking ability is going to come in. We’ve got lobs, we’ve got three. So that’s coming from my aggression. You just have to read the match and I think tonight I read the match well.”

Harden scored 24 points and provided 12 assists, although his success in the second unit was more notable than the last stat streak.

Rivers initially planned on a two-axle approach after the Sixers acquired Harden, aiming to keep two of his top four goals on the field at all times. He loved the idea of ​​Embiid with Tyrese Maxey and Harden alongside Tobias Harris. But that probably won’t be a strict rule in qualifying. The stakes were lower than the post-season and Harris’ faulty problem was a factor, yes, but Rivers saw no problem giving Harden long runs with Shake Melton, George Niang, Danny Green and Jordan, who were four players on the bench in Friday’s rotation.

The assortment is logical and intuitive. At their best, Milton and Green tick the coveted boxes as multi-position, transferable defenders and shoot-and-shoot players. Niang loved playing alongside Harden and seeing all of the newly available pick-and-pop trios.

But for Harden, is “attack mode” more natural with Unit Two players?

He said, “Yes.” “Yeah, because they look at me as more aggressive. But even with Joe in the game…we put in pick-and-roll, they put two on the basketball, I hit him in the pocket, he got a number of hits, he passes the ball twice easily. It’s Just read the helix defense and start playing. We have enough talent in this team that I don’t have to do much, but I am ready and willing to do so when the time comes (themselves).”

To make the obvious, Harden is better equipped to lead heavy bench formations than anyone in last year’s Sixers, including Harris. His presence doesn’t mitigate concerns about Jordan’s willingness to play their first post-season minutes in five years or the lack of complementary goals on poor shooting nights outside. But when Harden decides to attack, he’s historically been brilliant at it because he makes mistakes, gets up three times, and tends to get satisfactory answers to whatever the defense throws at him.

The Sixers don’t need Harden to prove he’s selfless or smart.

“It was sometimes very negative,” Embiid said. “In the qualifiers, he has to be aggressive, whether it’s scoring the ball or finding players. Same with me. You have to start with us. We have to look to make the right plays, whether it’s scoring or playmaking.”

Of course, the Sixers’ core players will be the most important in the playoffs. So far, despite Friday’s sluggish start, the team has a net worth rating of plus -20.7 with trade starts post-Harden, according to Cleaning the Glass.

In front of Dallas, the performance of the bench was boosted by a storm of triple Niang. Of his 5.2 attempts from three points per game this season, 5.0 have been jumpers. He made 39.1 per cent of those shots and was not discouraged by the occasional rough patch.

Well, missed shots sound bad,” Niang said. “But you want to know what looks worse? Moving or bouncing the ball off your foot. So I’d rather miss it or at least give myself a chance to score than do something stupid. I’m over that real speed once I’ve traveled or flipped the ball a few times. I didn’t turn up I’m here to look cute dribbling the ball, so I’m definitely going to go out there and shoot. That’s what I do.”

And when Harden shares the floor with the bench players, there seems to be similar role clarity. This doesn’t address every depth issue for the Sixers, but it certainly could lead to less pressure while Embiid is on the sidelines.