Tyrese Maxey, 76ers are far more concerned about Joel Embiid’s return than James Harden

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LOS ANGELES — Tyrese Maxey sat with his back to his locker along the far side of the cramped visitor’s dressing room at halftime Friday night when his coach, in front of the entire 76ers team, ordered from him a certain move for when the game resumed.

Nick Nurse wanted Maxey, one of the fastest players in the NBA, to burst toward the lane with the ball, stop in his tracks, take a step back and hoist a 3. 

“It looked like great advice … like, his first possession in the second half, he raced in there, pulled back (and shot it), and it ended up being his only 3-point make of the night,” Nurse said.

There were actually two messages Nurse delivered to Maxey at halftime of what turned out to be another frustrating Sixers’ loss, this time to the Los Angeles Lakers. The first: Try that pull-back 3, will ya?

The second thing Nurse wanted to make sure Maxey understood, because it transcends any single move available to him on any given night, no matter what the opposing defense has cooked up to try and stop him.

“Like, you gotta keep attacking,” Nurse told Maxey. “You are our best option.”

Nobody on the Philadelphia side has time for reflection. The Sixers are in survival mode, trying to avoid the Eastern Conference Play-In or otherwise be in a position to take advantage of a 7-foot-sized reinforcement coming in due time.

But there was a thought that crossed Maxey’s mind as he heeded Nurse’s call for more, a serendipitous contemplation given what is on the Sixers’ plate this week in particular, and what they’ve been dealing with over the past seven weeks.

If Joel Embiid weren’t hurt to begin with, and, if the Sixers hadn’t traded James Harden to the LA Clippers on Oct. 31, Maxey, who is just 23 and an All-Star for the first time this season, wouldn’t have heard those words from Nurse, because Nurse wouldn’t have been in position to say them.

“Yeah, I think about Joel being hurt, about James being traded, and him finding happiness here in L.A., I think about all of it,” Maxey said Sunday, after tying for a team-high 24 points in a 121-107 win against Harden and the Clippers. “I’m glad for James, glad he’s happy and playing for the Clippers, but for me, I just try to get a little bit better each time.”

After nearly five months with no interaction since the mega trade Harden forced the 76ers to make, the two sides see each other twice this week.

Perhaps too much time has passed for the usual side salad of soap opera that arises when a star player forces a trade and then goes against the old team.

“It seems like it’s been a long time – I don’t know if anybody is even mad anymore,” Nurse quipped.

Harden, who scored 12 points with 14 assists in the lopsided loss to the Sixers, dressed and left the locker room so fast on Sunday that coach Tyronn Lue hadn’t even addressed the media yet. Harden’s skirting of postgame media duties is a violation of league policy. He will have more questions, and, way more boos and jeers than he heard Sunday from the smattering of Sixers fans who spent the weekend in L.A., waiting for him when the Clippers play in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

Of the two superstar, NBA-MVP, scoring-champ players not currently in uniform for Philadelphia, the Sixers’ minds are on the one who will one day play for them again. They miss Embiid, who is back in Philadelphia ramping up his conditioning and on-court work after surgery to repair a meniscus tear in early February. Robert Covington and De’Anthony Melton, two other key Sixers, are also out with injuries.

Harden may be front and center this week, but the Sixers’ players don’t seem to mind.

“We didn’t take it personal at all,” said Maxey, who called Harden “my brother” and said the two still talk. “Even when James came to training camp, whenever he was there, he was nice to us, he was good.”

Said Tobias Harris: “James is a hell of a player and I’ll always have a huge amount of respect for him. Playing with him here, it’s good to see him playing in L.A., flourishing and playing his game and just ballin’ out. It’s all love and respect. He’s a hall-of-fame player, and for me it was an honor being here, playing with him.”

And Paul Reed, another former teammate of Harden’s in Philadelphia: “It was cool seeing big bro out there.”

Harden’s chief complaint was not with any of the Sixers players, at least not the ones who were on the court Sunday, nor was it with Nurse, who is in his first season coaching Philadelphia. Harden felt he was asked to defer too much to Embiid, and perhaps bristled at former coach Doc Rivers for doing the asking, but the real breaking point between the organization and Harden was the disagreement over his contract situation with Sixers GM Daryl Morey.

On Sunday, Reed said Harden’s extended absences from the team during camp, as he worked to force the trade, was a “crazy” time. Asked if he was upset that Harden is not on the Sixers, given how highly he and his teammates still talk about him, Reed said “I was upset, but I wasn’t like ‘upset, upset.’”

The Harden-Sixers breakup dominated NBA headlines over the summer and fall, and positions from each side were well documented. The time lapse between the trade and a reunion game maybe mitigated some of the emotions that might have otherwise welled up, but so did the success enjoyed by the Sixers after trading Harden, up to a point.

With Harden gone to the Clippers, the Sixers flourished for a while with a dominant, repeat-MVP-style performance by Embiid and with Nurse’s fresh voice and coaching style welcome in the locker room. Philadelphia is the only team other than Boston to be alone in first in the East this season, a position the Sixers held from Nov. 8-13. They were otherwise cruising along in second or third place until late January, when Embiid went down and the losses came in bunches.

To be clear, any team would struggle when a 7-footer averaging 35 points and 11 rebounds is out of the lineup. With Sunday’s win over the Clippers, the Sixers snapped a two-game slide and improved to 10-16 since Embiid crumpled to the court that fateful night in San Francisco on Jan. 30. The Sixers are eighth in the East, having the same record as the Miami Heat one-half game behind the Indiana Pacers for the No. 6 seed.

“I think that we’ve got to see ourselves with Joel as a really good team, like a really good team,” Nurse said. “Like, we can play every night with anybody. We proved it. … I keep saying, we got to pick some of these off (with Embiid out).”

Nurse said the team has played better collectively on defense in Embiid’s absence, largely because of the effort on the perimeter to make up for him being out. He has asked Maxey to be the focal point of the offense, had to rely more on Harris as a second scoring option, while featuring Mo Bamba in Embiid’s place in the lineup.

Nurse also said he knows he’s asked more of some of the Sixers than they are capable of doing, though he didn’t provide any specific examples.

“When Joel is back, or when he’s playing, these guys play a certain role,” Nurse said. “They are now, like, way outside those roles, right? So it’s good I think it improves us overall, but you’re also seeing that, you know, maybe, there’s only incremental gains you can make.

“Everybody just kind of plays off of Joel when he’s out there. And now we’ve got to figure out how to use these guys in other ways.”

In 20 games played since Embiid’s injury, Maxey is averaging nearly 26 points on 21 shots a game – roughly his averages for the entire season. Maxey marvels at the different coverages he faces each game with Embiid out, as teams now game plan to stop him first, and often looks to pass early in games when opponents send multiple defenders to force the ball out of his hands.

Maxey, who called it “cool I guess” that Nurse considers him the Sixers’ best option, said he dreams of the day when Embiid re-joins him to take away some of the attention he gets. And that day is coming, probably some time in early April, where the Sixers have targeted a return for Embiid to get him re-acclimated and in shape before the postseason begins. Embiid returned to practice last Monday, but did not accompany Philadelphia on this current four-game trip, so he could work out at the team’s training complex.

Where the Sixers fit into the East bracket, as a top-six team — with a guaranteed first-round opponent, or as a Play-In team that must win to get into the playoffs — is still very much undecided.

“We know what the situation is,” Maxey said. “We know we gotta go out there and fight. He’s not here, he’s not walking through those doors right now. What we have in this locker room, that’s who has to go out there and compete. I mean, it can be done. We’ve done it. We’ve gone out and beaten good teams. It’s doable.”

The Sixers finish this road trip Monday in Sacramento, and then it’s home for a rematch with Harden and the Clippers. Philadelphia fans’ collective reputation precedes itself, and a raucous, rowdy atmosphere is expected for Harden’s return. Even Nurse admitted that, if he is to feel anything about coaching against Harden, it would be at home Wednesday.

But what is of far more concern to all the Sixers is not the superstar who left for good. It’s the one who is coming back.

“If we get healthy, we have a chance,” Maxey said. “We have this one guy on our team who’s like 7-2, he averages like 40 (points) a game. He’s pretty good. We get him healthy, we get (Melton) healthy, we get (Covington) healthy, we’ll be all right.”

(Photo of Tyrese Maxey and James Harden: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

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