James Harden shines on home debut in Philadelphia


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James Harden saw the fake beards hanging from his chins, the oversized cutouts of his head waving above outstretched arms and heard 76ers fans shouting from the stands that they loved him.

Harden knew from his first steps on the court that his nearly 14-month three-team journey — which he largely orchestrated — got him exactly where he wanted to play.

“I just wanted to get out there and show my love back,” Harden said.

Much like the bushy beard that defines his image, Harden grew up on the 76ers.

Harden had a packed house in a frenzy from when he was billed as “making his home debut in Philadelphia” and then displayed his MVP form with 26 points, nine assists and nine rebounds to lead the 76ers to a 123-108 victory over the New York Knicks on Wednesday night.

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James Harden of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts after a field goal during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Wednesday, March 2, 2022, in Philadelphia.
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Joel Embiid had 27 points and 12 rebounds. Tyrese Maxey scored 25 points.

“We’re all going together,” Embiid said.

But the night belonged to the Beard.

The Sixers went 3-0 with Harden in the lineup and his dynamic duo with Embiid suddenly marked the Sixers as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference.

“I feel like you can put me anywhere in the room and I can fit in,” Harden said. “It’s no different here. Just see what you have and do your best to fit in. Be the best James Harden I can be in every aspect.”

Harden needed time to prepare for the new digs. His first points came with 5:32 left in the first quarter on, naturally, an and-1 conversion. He followed that up with, yes, his step back 3 to give him a quick five points.

There was a lot more to show.

He scored 13 points in the second quarter and asked fans to shoot videos on their phones.

Philly’s hype for the new arrival rivaled the first games scheduled in the last 25 years from Terrell Owens (Eagles) and Bryce Harper (Phillies). The Wells Fargo Center was packed with 21,333 fans and tickets for a top seat – not far from sight of rapper Meek Mill – sold for thousands on the secondary market.

Even director M. Night Shyamalan attended the biggest sporting event in town.

“It felt like a playoff atmosphere,” Embiid said. “I’ve given Philadelphia fans a lot of credit over the years and they’ve always come through, won or lost.”

The masks fell – and the beards continued. With Philadelphia dropping the indoor mask mandate, Sixers fans had their faces cleared to purchase the $5 fake beards at team merchandise stores. The Sixers apparently could have paid Harden’s salary out of the amount of his equipment sold alone before the whistleblower. Fans filled stores and stands and bought the new No. 1 jerseys, socks and t-shirts emblazoned with Harden’s image.

Sixers fans wore his jersey as they hung above the tunnel leading to the locker room and waited for Harden to rush onto the field. With about an hour remaining in warm-ups, Harden emerged to a loud ovation. He shot 3 and joked with coaches and teammates, oblivious to the expectations ahead.

Sixers coach Doc Rivers has built winners with Hall of Famers and All-Stars on his roster and understands the need to rule out the frenzy that followed Harden’s debut.

“I do the same job, the same job. It’s just that more people notice it,” Rivers said. “I think when you bring a guy like James and Joel together with what we have, with all of our other guys, our guys feel it too. Not the hype, though. It’s that they have a real hit. You don’t didn’t get a lot.”

The Knicks, losing 13 of 15 games, led at halftime and held the lead early in the third. Embiid hit 3s twice which brought the Sixers down to under one. Then Philly hit the road. Maxey scored 11 points in the quarter and the Sixers beat the Knicks 38-19 to finally take the lead for good. Embiid, Maxey and even Georges Niang each hit two 3s in the quarter.

ADVICE

Knicks: New York is 9-20 against opponents over .500. … Kentucky coach John Calipari sat down for a quick chat with his former player, Julius Randle. … RJ Barrett scored 30 points.

“I just want us to get better. Come every day, put on everything you’ve got,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “That’s where we have to focus right now. We have to overcome the hurdle and close the games. That’s our challenge. Keep growing, keep improving, learn from our mistakes.”

76ers: Harden hit two 3-pointers. Ben Simmons, the All-Star he was traded for from Brooklyn, made five overall during his four-year career with the 76ers.

100

The 76ers celebrated the 60th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. On March 2, 1962, at Hershey Sports Arena, Chamberlain shot 36 of 63 from the floor and an unprecedented 28 of 32 from the free throw line. He played all 48 minutes of the Philadelphia Warriors’ 169-147 win over the Knicks. Members of Chamberlain’s family helped ring the pregame bell.

DRINK BOOS

Stateside Vodka, a Philadelphia-based vodka company, had offered $25 gift cards in exchange for old Simmons jerseys. The company said Wednesday it received 352 jerseys that were donated to shelters in Brooklyn.

FOLLOWING

76ers: Host Cleveland on Friday.

Knicks: Open a six-game road trip — though the last game is in Brooklyn — Friday at Phoenix.


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