Here are some commandments I’ll try to abide by in the following piece, which in and of itself is such a trap game, and I should know better than to write hype propaganda so close to the Sixers-Nets tip-off, but the spirit of the basketball being played by Philly (and, yes, even by a near-fully-activated Brooklyn, because my god is a benevolent god) compels me. I hope the lessons here help others as they prepare for the game of the season.
1. I will not pretend that this game will somehow decide the 2021-22 NBA season, swing the verdict on the Ben Simmons–James Harden trade, or fulfill the Hinkie Process. It’s just a game. That being said, the first five months of this Sixers season were about everything but basketball, the past six games have been about just the basketball, and this Northeast Corridor Derby (shout-out to both Amtrak and English football) is about both basketball and a lot more, which is exactly where you want your NBA games situated.
Even with Simmons on the bench this is shaping up to be more dramatic than most of the TV you could watch on any given night. You’ve got the prodigal son returning to the town he demanded out of, nursing a back injury but facing the music of the Philly crowd; you’ve got Kyrie Irving coming off a 50-point performance against Charlotte, prompting his teammate Kevin Durant to give him a friggin’ round of applause (I’m not deaf to the charms of Durant and Irving’s mutual aesthetic appreciation society); you’ve got Durant, Irving, Doc Rivers, Georges Niang, and basically everyone else weighing in on whether or not this game matters and not totally shying away from the fact that, yeah, it matters. You could tell me that the Sixers will win by three or the Nets by 26, that Harden will look like Magic Johnson or Harden will look like Kent Bazemore and I’d buy any of it. This game doesn’t mean the world, but it means a lot.
2. I will not act like the James Harden we’ve seen in five of the last six Sixers games (he did some hamstring maintenance on the night of the Miami game [insert giant bearded detective emoji]) will be the Harden we see for the rest of the season, postseason, or his time wearing a Sixers uniform. But I will say, as someone in a lifelong and occasionally quixotic relationship with the Sixers, that it feels like I have been watching a black-and-white movie for 20 years and then I got hit over the head and dragged into an IMAX theater, and when I woke up fucking Avatar was playing. He is easily the best creator or perimeter player this team has had at least since Allen Iverson (I can’t have that conversation for a bit). This chart pretty much sums it up:
3. I will not openly wonder whether Doc Rivers has been hiding a secret playbook in some kind of contraption that requires the Da Vinci Code to open, only to unlock it with the arrival of Harden, thus transforming the Sixers into some unholy amalgam of Pete Carril Princeton movement, Jerry Sloan pick-and-roll, Mike D’Antoni/Moreyball, and Beach Boys harmonies. Make no mistake, Doc’s standing in Philly is riding on the rest of this season. He was supposed to be a players’ coach (I think?) and his second-best player demanded a trade. So what was his purpose with the team? Because it certainly wasn’t his play-calling.
For most of Rivers’s tenure, even through the relative highs of last season’s Eastern Conference–leading regular season, I would watch the Sixers play offense with one eye on literally anything else I could find—six-month-old New Yorker issues, dust under my TV stand, a Twitter thread about why people misunderstand the subtextual brilliance of the Rock’s Jumanji: The Next Level. Nobody moved, nobody could really shoot (aside from Danny Green and Seth Curry), and nobody could explain to me how they ever scored enough points to win (even though it happened 49 times).
Now, Rivers is orchestrating a very cool offense where players are always fucking open. It helps tremendously that one of the five most dangerous offensive players of the past 10 years is running it, sure. But I have been blown away by the transformation of the team from rock-throwing ogres to … this:
4. I will not fall for the footage of Harden running the stairs of the Wells Fargo Center after the Sixers’ victory over the Bulls from earlier this week.
Right after the Sixers handled the Bulls, James Harden was spotted back out in the bowl at the Wells Fargo Center running stadium stairs pic.twitter.com/5HVSim3E89— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) March 8, 2022
This is what you call “playing to the base.” Nothing arouses Philadelphians more than watching people run up steps. Well, that and old YouTube videos of Tony Romo holding his collarbone while Fox’s sad injury jazz plays. Running up steps is definitely in the top two, though. The sight of Harden, who, as I previously noted, is nursing a hamstring made out of Oaxacan cheese, sprinting up concrete steps while unseen cheerleaders shout “Yeah, James” is straight-up pornography. It’s antiquated! Look, Jimmy Butler had a cup of coffee in Philadelphia so I know all about performative effort-merchant behavior, and according to some folks with Rockets avatars on Reddit this is not uncommon behavior for Harden. But I gotta keep my head on a swivel here, because watching the Sixers’ new genius-level composer take his conditioning into his own hands and risk his hammy for the likes is seductive, even for a time-tested vet like myself.
5. I will not compare watching Tyrese Maxey to what it must have been like to see Bad Brains in 1982. Maxey came back down to earth a little bit against the Bulls, merely adding 17 points, four assists, and a steal (you can tell I really like Tyrese Maxey because I felt compelled to point out he had a steal), but he has been the not-so-secret winner from the Harden-Simmons swap. He was already making a leap; now he has popped. It’s a testament to how much I love this kid that all the little gestures embedded in his game, from his little forward lean on his jumper to the light-up-the-arena smile he flashes after a highlight play, have already been ingrained in my mind. There will probably be some regression from the [checks newly inked tattoo on forearm] 60-61-82 shooting numbers he has put up since Harden’s first game, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts.
6. I will not openly ponder whether the Sixers actually still have the best Australian basketball player on their roster.
7. Speaking of Ben. I will not preemptively wade into whatever happens with Simmons on Thursday night. I could make the argument that there’s probably a wider spectrum of Sixers fan opinion about Simmons than you would think from the outside looking in. I always loved his game, didn’t really care all that much about the shot until it became an albatross hanging around the whole team’s neck, and didn’t blame him entirely for the playoff collapse last season. He isn’t the first player to have demanded a trade, and maybe his way of dealing with it was actually better than the way Harden forced himself out of Houston and Brooklyn. I don’t know if I’m representative of a silent majority of fans, but even if I were I imagine those sentiments will be drowned out by boo birds on Thursday night. I hope they get their licks in in the beginning and then keep it moving, though. It would honestly suck if whatever happens on the court gets subsumed by crap that happens off of it. There’s been enough of that already this season.
8. Speaking of rivalries. I will not let Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving talk me out of believing that this game could be feisty and fun. I’m kind of over how over it those two are. Everything is a media narrative, a fiction, a fabrication. They are playing hoop in a dimension that mere mortals can barely comprehend, etc., and have left behind the trappings of everyday NBA basketball.
After Brooklyn’s win over Charlotte, Durant talked about his expectations for the Sixers game, and while most people seized on his comments about booing (“I think part of the experience of coming to an NBA game is to heckle. Some people don’t even enjoy basketball, they just, like—their lives are so shitty that they get to just aim it at other people, so it’s easy to kind of get that release at a basketball game”), I noted his dismissal of Nets-Sixers as a possible rivalry: “It’ll be loud. I’m sure Philly fans and people who watch the game, media think this is somewhat of a budding rivalry.” Irving also pre-deflated the atmosphere: “It makes for good stories. It makes for good narratives and good build-up for our league.”
Let’s just say: It’s cool that two teams, two hours apart, with the same aspirations, are taking each other on, after a blockbuster trade that altered the makeup of each team’s roster. Sorry, they are tied to each other now, and that’s interesting. Maybe the reason Irving and Durant are so mystified by the passion of Philly fans is because there are no actual Nets fans?
9. I will not make fun of Nets fans.
10. I will not let this game swing the MVP race. It would be extremely cool, for me, personally, for the Sixers, as a team, the league, as an institution, and Earth, as a planet, if Embiid put up the same numbers against Brooklyn that he did against Chicago (a chill 43 and 14), but even I will admit that I think Nikola Jokic is pulling away.
11. I will sing the damn song if the Sixers win.