By Tommy Matthews
Last night’s Sixers-Knicks game was the toughest ticket in this town since Pope Francis visited in September 2015.
And, with all due respect, the pontiff doesn’t have a step-back 3!
But James Harden does, and more, which is why Philly went nuts last night at the Wells for The Beard’s first home game.
And the 20,000-plus weren’t disappointed.
Harden showed why Sixers big boss Daryl Morey traded Ben Simmons for him:
26 points, nine assists and nine rebounds to lead the 76ers to a 123-108 win over the New York Knicks.
Joel Embiid had 27 points and 12 rebounds. Tyrese Maxey scored 25 points.
“We all just fit together,” Embiid said.
The Sixers moved to 3-0 with Harden in the lineup and his dynamic duo hookup with Embiid has suddenly stamped 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. “Here is no different. Just see what you have and try your best to fit in. Be the best James Harden I can be in every aspect.”
His first points came with 5:32 left in the first quarter on, naturally, an and-1 conversion. He followed that with, yup, his step-back 3 to give him five fast points.
Philly’s hype for the new arrival rivaled the anticipated first games over the last 25 years of Terrell Owens (Eagles) and Bryce Harper (Phillies). The Wells Fargo Center was jammed with 21,333 fans and tickets for a top seat — not far off from rapper Meek Mill’s courtside view — were sold for thousands on the secondary market.
“It felt like a playoff atmosphere,” Embiid said. ”I’ve given a lot of credit to Philly fans over the years and they’ve always come through, win or lose.”
The masks came off — and the beards went on. With Philadelphia dropping the indoor mask mandate, Sixers fans had faces clear to buy the $5 fake beards in team merchandise stores. The Sixers seemingly could have paid Harden’s salary on the amount of his gear sold alone before tipoff. Fans packed the stores and stands and picked up the new No. 1 jerseys, socks and T-shirts emblazoned with Harden’s image.
Sixers fans wore his jersey as they hanged over the tunnel to the locker room and waited for Harden to run out onto the court. With about an hour left in warmups, Harden emerged to a big ovation. He shot 3s 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 shut out the frenzy that followed Harden’s debut.
“I do the same job, the same work. It’s just that more people notice,” Rivers said. “I think when you get a guy like James and Joel together with what we have, with all of our other guys, our guys sense it, too. Not the hoopla, though. It’s that they have a real shot. You don’t get many of these.”
The Knicks, losers of 13 of 15 games, led at halftime and kept the lead early in the third. Embiid twice hit 3s that brought the Sixers within one. Then Philly got going. Maxey scored 11 points in the quarter and the Sixers outscored the Knicks 38-19 to finally grab the lead for good. Embiid, Maxey and even Georges Niang each hit two 3s in the quarter.