PHILADELPHIA — They can’t get enough of James Harden in Philadelphia.
Just off the freeway a mile from the arena, a large billboard flashes "Thanks Ben For Bringing Us Harden," referring to the trade exactly a month ago that sent Harden to the 76ers for the much-maligned Ben Simmons.
According to the Philadelphia Business Journal, Harden’s 76ers jersey is the top seller in the NBA since the trade. A restaurant in Center City has a drink called the "Harden High Ball" on special Wednesday night.
It’s understandable that Harden finds himself a hero here. Entering Thursday’s game, he has been nothing short of spectacular since forcing his way out of Brooklyn. The 76ers were 5-0 with Harden on the floor, and in those five games, he averaged 24.6 points and 12.4 assists.
It’s no surprise, then, that all the stops were pulled out Thursday night as Harden and the 76ers faced the Nets for the first time since the trade. 76ers royalty Allen Iverson and Julius Irving sat baseline, and the team even had Dr. J ring the bell before the start of the game.
The teams already had a bit of a rivalry before the blockbuster deadline trade. The last time they played, Durant and Joel Embiid received technical fouls in the final moments before Embiid waved the Nets off their home floor after the 76ers’ Dec. 30 victory.
Both teams expected to be contenders at the start of the season, but the Nets have struggled. Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status has kept him from playing home games and Durant’s knee injury caused him to miss a month and a half.
While the Nets are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and appear headed for a play-in spot, the 76ers — with Embiid playing at a MVP level — have the second-best record in the conference.
76ers coach Doc Rivers believes the teams still have a way to go before it can be called a great rivalry.
"Red Sox-Yankees? That’s a rivalry. Duke-North Carolina? I’m positive that’s a rivalry," Rivers said. "This? I think let’s make it one. It’s going to happen if both of us want the same thing. We have the same exact goal. Isn’t that something? I think Brooklyn wants to win a world championship and so do the Sixers."
The Nets were the Vegas favorite to win it all at the start of the season as the combination of Harden, Irving and Durant was seen as one of the most talented in the history of the game. The Big 3 were special when they played together, posting a 16-3 record in parts of two seasons. Yet Durant made it clear before Thursday night’s game that he holds no ill will against Harden for breaking up the Big 3.
"When you look at it from his perspective, Ky’s not playing and then I’m injured," Durant said after the Nets’ win in Charlotte. "He hasn’t won a championship before. So he’s looking at it that he’s 32 years old. [HE’S]looking at himself, wanting to make a decision to get on a team that can get him to that — contending, being one of the last teams standing. So you look at his perspective, you just say it is what it is."
Thursday night was a chance for both franchises to show that they like the way their team is composed. The Nets certainly wanted to show Harden — who missed 10 of his first 11 shots and saw his new team fall behind 72-51 at halftime — that life goes on without him.
"Philly’s an excellent team, so we’re going to be challenged tonight," Nets coach Steve Nash said before the game. "We know the crowd will be great as well, so we’ll be facing adversity. So for us it’s a great test."