When the NBA stripped the Sixers of a second-round pick for tampering with Danuel House Jr. ahead of free agency, it looked like a critical own-goal for a team woefully devoid of assets. House spent most of the regular season on the fringes of Doc Rivers’ rotation, playing only 807 total minutes across 56 appearances.
But after House’s heroics in the Sixers’ Game 5 beatdown of the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Tuesday night, the Sixers are likely saying “f—k them picks.”
After largely being limited to garbage time throughout the Sixers’ first eight playoff games, House came in for a four-minute stint at the very end of the first quarter through the early portion of the second. Although he was sharing the floor with three other reserves (Georges Niang, Paul Reed and De’Anthony Melton) alongside James Harden over that stretch, the Sixers swelled their lead to 15 points before the Celtics began chipping away.
House’s first bucket on the night came in transition after De’Anthony Melton stripped Jayson Tatum on a drive to the rim. With Reed, Melton and Niang flanking him and only Malcolm Brogdon on the other end to protect the basket, House blew past the Sixth Man of the Year and lofted in a layup off the glass, causing the Celtics to call a timeout.
Attacking the Celtics in transition became a theme for House throughout the night. He came back in late in the third quarter and quickly capitalized off a Joel Embiid block of Tatum. He recovered the loose ball and once again drove right into the backpedaling Brogdon for another layup that pushed the Sixers’ lead to 17. Two of his three buckets in the fourth quarter came in transition, too.
After the game, a reporter asked House about his mentality on fast breaks.
“Be an athlete,” he said. “Score the ball if I can, make the right play if I can’t. And if a guy’s backpedaling, he can’t stop me.”
House knocked down all five of his two-point attempts on the night and finished with 10 points, five rebounds and an assist in 15 minutes. The Sixers outscored the Celtics by two points during his first-half stint and by one point with him on the floor between the late third and early fourth quarter. The Celtics’ garbage-time run is the only reason why he finished as a minus-8. (That’s proof of how single-game plus/minus can be noisy.)
Amazingly, to steal a line from Clerks, House wasn’t even supposed to be there making those impact plays for the Sixers on Tuesday night.
“I can tell you, we talked about it painstakingly yesterday and today between three guys, who to play. And I can tell you, House was not the pick,” Rivers told reporters after the game. “But I just picked him. I just thought we needed size and we needed athleticism. And that’s something that he has. And I also thought that he’s the guy that has played with James the most, and he knows how to play with James. So I thought that was important.”
That experience playing alongside Harden was particularly critical early in the fourth quarter. When the Celtics trimmed the Sixers’ lead to 11, the crowd woke up for what felt like the first time all night. House set a screen for Harden, who dished a behind-the-back pass to him after Jaylen Brown abandoned him to double-team the Sixers’ star ball-handler. House began driving to the basket, which caused the Celtics’ defense to collapse, and he proceeded to kick the ball out to a wide-open Tyrese Maxey for a momentum-styming three-pointer.
TYRESE MAXEY.— NBA (@NBA) May 10, 2023
5-9 FROM THREE.
76ers lead by 14 with 9 minutes to go!
PHI/BOS Game 5, Q4 on TNT pic.twitter.com/A7bQ4Uhjmm
“Those plays right there where you don’t have to tell somebody to do it, they’re just automatic, that’s good basketball,” Harden told reporters after the game. “He just knows. He’s an all-around player. Defensively, he’s really good. He can make shots, he can finish around the rim. So he just brought that energy for us.”
Since Rivers brought up House’s familiarity with Harden as one of the reasons why he dusted him off, a reporter asked House about that afterward.
“Set the screen, roll, I know what we need to do,” House responded. “I know what we’re looking for. I’ve been in those positions before with setting the screen, rolling, picking, popping, passing, shooting, scoring. It was a joy to be out there, to be honest.”
Going from zero to 60 in terms of meaningful playoff minutes did have one drawback, though.
“Danuel House gave me the European signal for substitution [X], which the whole locker room got a kick out of, because I didn’t know what it was,” Rivers told reporters afterward “… We have an X play, so I’m thinking, ‘X play,’ and he said, ‘No, I can’t breathe.’”
House credited Reggie Redding, his player development coach, for keeping him ready by playing 1-on-1, showing him clips and talking to him “about certain moves.” He said Redding has been telling him to “just stay ready” and “go out there and be me” whenever Rivers did call his number.
Based on how he fared in Game 5, it seems likely that House will get the call again Thursday in the potential closeout Game 6. Now that he has his sea legs under him, he seems ready to contribute however he can.
“I can’t let my brothers down to the left and right,” House said. “My name was called, so I had to step up. Guys have been doing a good job showcasing ‘we season.’ So I just wanted to get up in there and contribute to the ‘we season’ that we’ve been carrying along this whole season.”