Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden feels no pressure to enter playoffs, ‘ready to hoop’

CAMDEN, NJ — With his first postseason in Philadelphia set to begin Saturday against the Toronto Raptors, James Harden said he doesn’t feel any pressure to perform well for his new team.

“Pressure, no. I’m feeling good,” Harden said with a smile after Thursday’s practice session at the team’s facility. “I’m ready to mature. There’s nothing to it.”

Harden has to face the Raptors, who gave him seizures in the two encounters between the two teams following the Blockbuster trade that saw him come to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons in February. In those two games — both five-point losses for the 76ers and both 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 the 3-point range while making nine turnovers.

When asked what makes Toronto a tough matchup, Harden said it all comes down to the Raptors’ activity and unity defensively — not to mention they have a roster full of long-limbed athletes.

“They just fly around,” Harden said. “They play extremely hard. They kind of ruin the game. They have a lot of guys who are tall, athletic, long and solid defenders. They use their length very well and they support each other. They run around, they crawl and they fly defensively around so we have to execute for ourselves, make sure we’re crisp in our passes and if the shot is available take it.

To do so, however, Harden must also play at the level Philadelphia hoped for when the Sixers took him over – that of a top star who can win playoff games. Philadelphia’s other superstar, Joel Embiid, said he already knew what Toronto’s game plan was going to be: throwing doubles and trebles at him to get the ball out of his hands and demanding his teammates stand up and play instead do.

He said he’s totally fine with that and that’s why he’s not going into this series to score, instead making sure his teammates are involved.

“I don’t go on this series to be 40 on average,” Embiid said. “They’re going to grab the ball out of my hands. So it’s just that I really don’t get frustrated and I keep trusting my teammates and just making the right plays. Whether it’s 10 points, 20 points or whatever, as long as we’re scoring goals 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 team-mates better.”

That includes Harden, who Embiid said needed to tune out the noise about his past playoff struggles. Harden’s career was marked by several tough 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 has to be himself and let everything else take care of itself.

“I tell him to be himself. He’s done a great job as a playmaker but we need him to be aggressive and really hit the ball, especially against Toronto,” Embiid said. “The way they’re guarding me, we’re going to need them all. We’re going to need Tyrese [Maxey] to be aggressive with all the attention that will be on me and James. Tyrese, Tobias [Harris], all the other boys, they have to do plays. He just has to be himself and not worry about people talking about pressure. Whatever happened in the past, look back at what he achieved and did, he had to play against a dynasty. It would have been hard for anyone to beat those Golden State teams, so bad timing. But I’m sure it will be fine.”

What else seems fine is that both Harden and Embiid are going into the playoffs healthy. Embiid said he’s not “completely healthy” but feeling fine, while Harden said the ongoing hamstring issues that have dogged him since last season aren’t an issue at the moment.

“It’s good,” Harden said. “I actually did some sprints and some hamstring work this week so it’s a really good week to get ready for that first round.”

Viardos Sports