Despite the absence of their superstar center Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers knocked off the Boston Celtics inside TD Garden for a Game 1 victory to begin this Eastern Conference Semifinals duel. Tying a playoff career-high with 45 points, James Harden was brilliant. De’Anthony Melton drilled five triples and scored 17 points off the bench. P.J. Tucker and Tobias Harris embraced the grunge work and helped redirect things defensively after a dismal first quarter in that regard.
Here are three observations after the Sixers’ exhilarating, resilient Game 1 win.
James Harden, finding space
Throughout its first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia’s star point guard was a mess trying to score inside the arc. While he splashed home 42.4 percent of his long balls, he converted only 26.5 percent of his two-pointers. He didn’t necessarily struggle to create driving lanes, but the Nets’ glut of rangy wings and Nicolas Claxton lurking around the rim made almost every downhill venture hellish. The Celtics are not built the same way defensively. Harden reaped the rewards in Game 1.
He shot 10 of 16 on two-pointers and was particularly adept from midrange. His willingness and aversion to those looks has ebbed and flowed all season. At his best, the midrange pull-ups and stepbacks are a prominent part of his toolkit. At his worst, he looks lost at the rim, squanders advantages because of midrange timidity and relies on threes for all his scoring. In this one, Harden was at his best.
According to PBPStats, Harden shot 8 of 14 from midrange on Monday. Nearly 47 percent of his field goals came there (27 percent against Brooklyn). Only two of his 30 shots (6.7 percent) were at the rim; that number was 27 percent in Round 1, when the Nets’ wings closed off his midrange space and funneled him to the rim for unappealing finishes. Whereas Brooklyn is stocked with a slew of wings tailored to frustrate Harden, the Celtics are loaded with burly guards who he can punish. Time and time again, Harden leveraged his own strength into comfortable attempts from midrange. He also regularly got to his pull-up triple. None of Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon or Derrick White consistently prevented him from finding his comfort zones and it was the primary reason the Sixers lead this series 1-0.
The Celtics have an Al Horford Problem
During the Celtics’ first-round victory over the Atlanta Hawks, their top-five offense continued to be prolific, evidenced by a 118.8 offensive rating. But Atlanta kept four of the six games competitive and even nabbed a couple wins because of Boston’s glaring defensive woes, particularly in ball-screens involving Al Horford. The Celtics’ 114.3 defensive rating in the first round was 3.7 points lower than the regular season. Those issues carried over to begin Round 2.
Harden running P&R at Horford...— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) May 2, 2023
16 direct picks -> 28 points = 1.75 points per (via @SecondSpectrum)
All game, Harden reveled in pick-and-rolls featuring Horford. After he opened the night on Paul Reed, the Celtics even tried hiding him on P.J. Tucker for most of the second half and would pre-switch at seemingly all costs to keep him away from the action. It didn’t usually matter. Harden was meticulous and called over screener after screener until Horford was in his sights.
Of course, Harden’s dagger triple occurred when he brought Horford onto him, but a fruitful play mere possessions earlier fully encapsulated the song-and-dance between the two sides that Philadelphia won Monday night.
Celtics constantly tried to insulate Al Horford defensively in the second half by shifting his assignment from Paul Reed to P.J. Tucker + repeatedly pre-switching him out of PnRs.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 2, 2023
Didn't matter. James Harden was relentless getting him involved. This play is a perfect example: pic.twitter.com/wMTPmeCF3H
Earlier in the game, Harden repeatedly got to his pull-up when Horford adhered to drop coverage, so he played at the level this time, which opened up an angle for Reed’s roll and Harden’s pocket pass. The Sixers don’t need Harden to score 45 every night. What they do need is his individual scoring to be threatening enough that defenses have to account for it and consider or employ schematic tweaks, just like Game 1. That’ll certainly be easier to accomplish with the liability Horford has been in ball-screens to open these playoffs.
P.J. Tucker nailing the details
On the possession immediately succeeding the one shown above, the Sixers forced a turnover and took the lead. While the entire quintet on the floor — Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Harris, Tucker and Reed — were sensational defensively, Harris and Tucker’s stars shone brightest, especially Tucker’s. Harris’ work on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is paramount. Tucker, meanwhile, is just freaking everywhere on the play closing off the paint for Boston and ensuring the Sixers are organized amid the frenzied scramble.
He covers Tatum’s cut and tells Harris to take Brown. He shades help on Brown’s drive and retreats back to Tatum. He rotates on Smart’s drive and tells Maxey to switch onto Tatum. He confronts Tatum and Brogdon’s drive, the last of which prompts an errant pass and Maxey bucket. He’s the linchpin of the entire play. It’s phenomenal.
Absolute masterclass defensive possession from Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker pic.twitter.com/nxPEhsrXLD— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 2, 2023
Zero points, zero shots, one monumental defensive stop for Tucker, who remains this team’s Little Things King.