The Sixers opened their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Celtics in Boston on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to steal a game on the road. Boston wanted to take care of business at home. James Harden authored a masterpiece in Joel Embiid’s absence, dropping 45 points to lead the Sixers to a shocking upset, 119-115.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
- The Sixers were without the services of Embiid, who has a sprained right knee.
- Doc Rivers started Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Paul Reed.
- The Celtics were without the services of Danilo Gallinari, who is recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee.
- Joe Mazzulla started Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford.
Harden didn’t care for the storyline that the Sixers were doomed without Embiid in this game. He came out and set the tone early in this one, scoring 16 points in the first quarter. Harden dismissed concerns about his two-point shooting after an ugly first-round series, backing his way into the paint for three consecutive midrange jumpers early in the first quarter. The bearded guy wasn’t done, lacing a pair of threes against some very soft Boston drop coverage.
Harden’s mentality the entire game was precisely what the Sixers needed with Embiid absent. Boston switched, daring him to isolate. No matter, he dusted Brown off the dribble and converted a crafty layup and stuck a dagger in Horford’s eye to ice the game for Philadelphia in the fourth quarter.
They mixed up defensive looks by rotating between hedging screens and sitting in drop coverage. It didn’t matter. They gave Harden too much space to operate all night long, funneling him into pull-up twos. All that did was warm him up and make him comfortable. As the game wore on, Harden stretched the defense further. He began rejecting the space in the midrange in favor of open threes behind the screen.
It didn’t matter what the Celtics threw at Harden. He had an answer for everything they showed. No. 1 was patient, reading the initial coverage and determining what he needed Boston’s defense to do to give him the light he needed to execute what he wanted. He destroyed the Celtics in every scheme they showed. Calling his own number to the tune of 30 field goal attempts, Harden hunted his shot all night long. Philadelphia needed every single one of his makes. It was the type of performance, especially with Embiid out, that reminded everyone why the Sixers traded for Harden in the first place.
The Sixers don’t win this game without a couple of massive performances down the roster. First, there was Melton. Maligned for poor play in previous playoffs, Melton supplied five makes from beyond the arc in the first half. When things looked to be getting out of hand as Boston scored seemingly every time down the floor, Melton’s shooting silenced the momentum. 17 points off the bench let Philadelphia stay in the ballpark of Boston’s bench production, Malcolm Brogdon pouring in 20 for the Celtics.
Regardless of Embiid’s status, the Sixers need Harden and Maxey to step up to have a chance in this series. Harden obviously answer the bell in Game 1. But, it would’ve been worthless had Maxey not figured some things out. He scored 19 points in the second half, and you could tell something clicked for him in a way that it hadn’t in their four regular-season matchups. Maxey did a fabulous job of finishing high off the glass, keeping the ball away from the outstretched arms of whichever Celtics were in his way. As he got a taste of success, Maxey grew increasingly confident. That confidence bred aggression, and suddenly the Celtics had two fires burning in their house.
It was a rough go for Reed in the first half, Boston going at him aggressively in the paint. Boston’s shooting did eventually regress towards normalcy, but Reed was far better in the second half. Not only was he more effective on the glass, but his defensive reads improved. He made plays on passes over the top, using Boston’s excessive confidence that those plays would be there with Reed on the court against the Celtics.
Most important of all, Reed stepped to the charity stripe and put the game away for the Sixers with four consecutive makes late in the fourth quarter.
There are countless things to crucify the Celtics for in this game. That’s always the case when you blow games that favored you heavily. I think it’s fair to say the Celtics gave this game away in some respects. But, the Sixers went out there and earned it. They outplayed Boston when it mattered most. That resilience in the face of adversity has been part of Philadelphia’s DNA all season. They have never let circumstances dictate effort. Winning without Embiid has become something of a norm for the Sixers this season. And, once again, they showed that they’re truly capable of beating anyone on any given night the MVP is sidelined.
Both teams started out ridiculously hot on offense, trading buckets throughout the first half. But, Boston jumped out to a double-digit lead because Philadelphia did a terrible job of defending the back side. The Celtics snuck behind the Sixers in transition throughout the first half, running the ball right into their guts every chance they could. It looked like the Celtics and Sixers were playing two entirely different sports, Boston executing their offense with precision while wiping Philadelphia off the court with foot speed. Boston was much quicker even in the halfcourt environment. The Sixers opened the game switching everything, and the Celtics responded by dusting anyone in their way off the dribble for scores at the rim.
It feels silly to criticize Harden after the night he had, but the Sixers could’ve put some space between themselves and the Celtics in the third quarter if he made better decisions. That was Harden’s coldest period of the night. I don’t mind him letting it fly in space against drop coverage. But, there were times when he turned down the midrange space in favor of threes when the Sixers were making their push. There were also times in which the Celtics were making their push and the Sixers were looking to stem the tides. Instead, Harden settled for pull-up threes. It ultimately did not matter at all, but those decisions could’ve been a turning point for the Celtics if they had won.
Removing five critical points from Harris in the fourth quarter, the veteran forward really left you wanting more. There were possessions in which the Sixers needed someone else to take the wheel, only for him to have no touch. There were some spacing problems that made his job a bit more difficult. For example, Jalen McDaniels bringing a helper towards Harris on a post-up that ultimately yielded a missed fading jumper from Harris. But, this was the latest case of a trend for Harris in his days with the Sixers.
He is more than capable of stepping in a big way in the first round. But, when defenses get better and stakes get higher starting in the second round, he devolves into a guy who you’re not convinced wants to shoot. There’s no room for that question if the Sixers are going to get where they want to go.
The Sixers (1-0) will stay in Boston for Game 2 against the Celtics (0-1) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.
I provide daily coverage of the Philadelphia 76ers for The Painted Lines / Edge of Philly Sports. As a reporter, I work every day to foster relationships with those around the NBA, shape my analysis of what I see in games, and keep tabs on what’s to come around the league. I also host a Sixers-centric podcast called The Feed To Embiid. Follow me on Twitter, @NBAKrell.