PHILADELPHIA (AP) – James Harden saw the fake beards dangling from chins, 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 step on the court that his nearly 14-month, three-team journey – that he in large part orchestrated – brought him exactly where he wanted to play.
“I just wanted to come out there and show my love back,” Harden said. Much like the bushy beard that defines his image, Harden has grown on the 76ers.
Harden had a packed house in a frenzy from the moment he was introduced as “making his Philadelphia home debut”, then flashed his MVP form with 26 points, nine assists and nine rebounds to lead the 76ers to a 123-108 win over the New York Knicks early yesterday.
Joel Embiid had 27 points and 12 rebounds. Tyrese Maxey scored 25 points. 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.
The Wells Fargo Center was jammed with 21,333 fans and tickets for a top seat were sold for thousands on the secondary market. Even director M Night Shyamalan attended for the city’s biggest happening on the sports scene.
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.
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.