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Sixers have their best ‘game they never win’ in the biggest moment

Joel Embiid was out and the Celtics were huge favorites. In Game 1, the Sixers turned a “here we go again” situation into a team-defining moment.

Philadelphia 76ers (119) Vs. Boston Celtics (115) At TD Garden Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Way back on media day in September of 2022, Tyrese Maxey shared head coach Doc Rivers’ overarching message to the team: “This is a ‘we’ season, not a ‘me’ season.”

Sure, it was a little cheesy, but it stuck. You heard multiple players reference it throughout the season. The team also acquired multiple players who embody that phrase.

With Joel Embiid out and facing the heavily-favored Celtics in the second round, nobody would’ve been surprised if the Sixers lost. It felt like a forgone conclusion that they’d drop Game 1 and hope that the presumptive MVP’s LCL sprain would heal enough to have a chance to steal Game 2.

Instead, the Sixers turned a “here we go again” situation into a team-defining moment, winning a game they never win in Boston, 119-115, Monday.

“We didn’t come into the game expecting to lose. We are here to win,” James Harden, who had a virtuoso 45-point performance, told reporters in Boston. “Even after this game, I told the guys, ‘Don’t get too happy. We’re even-keeled. We’re coming in here to get Game 2 as well.’ So that’s the mindset we have as a unit. Whether Jo comes back or not, we’ll be ready to go. Obviously, he’s everything for this team. But whoever’s on the floor, let’s go win the game, and that’s what we did tonight.”

Look, Sixers fans. Doc Rivers deserves credit. You might have to grit your teeth while you give it, but it’s deserved.

Rivers mentioned at practice last week how part of the Sixers’ culture he wanted to change is how they performed when Embiid was out of the lineup. In his first season here, he could sense dread permeating throughout the locker room when the big fella was out of the lineup.

Here we are in 2023, where there Sixers went 11-5 without Embiid in the regular season and are now 2-0 in the postseason. Better personnel is an enormous help, but there is an attitude amongst this group that they can win with whoever is playing that night.

On Monday, that attitude served them well.

“It’s just the difference between us this year and last year,” Rivers said. “We’ve had practice at it, No. 1. And we really believe. James has missed games, we win. Joel has missed games, we win. That’s the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team. We have a bunch of street fighters and they believe. … They said it all week: ‘If we can get to the fourth quarter, we’re going to win the game.’ That’s how we felt. That doesn’t mean that always happens, but that’s how we felt.”

On top of the attitudinal shift, Rivers pressed all the right buttons strategically.

Boston had a layup line in the first quarter, shooting 85 percent from the field. Rivers switched to a zone, something the Sixers became pretty good at during the regular season, and it helped stem the tide while the team evidently was shaking off a bit of rust from a long layoff.

Rivers also made three good rotation decisions: he only played eight guys, he stuck with Paul Reed and he used P.J. Tucker as his backup five. Bball Paul was not at his best in the first half — and some of his teammates lit into him a bit after a possession in the second half. But credit to Doc for not pulling the plug and going to one of his veteran bigs. Reed was their best option and had earned the right to figure it out.

And he did, coming up with the biggest defensive play of the game and sinking four free throws late in the contest.

Rivers also trusted his team on the possession that led to Harden’s game-winning three. He went small, pulling Reed for Georges Niang in order to give Harden maximum spacing. After Jayson Tatum sunk a free throw, Rivers didn’t use a timeout. He allowed his veteran point guard to take the wheel and didn’t allow the Celtics to set up their defense.

Then it was up to Harden to make a play.

“It was great coaching as far as not letting them set up,” Harden said. “They’re a great defensive team, especially when you give them opportunities to set up. So we didn’t want to give them that chance. We wanted to keep the floor open. P.J. set a really good screen, I came off, and I got my shot. I think that’s how this series is going to go. We’ve got to be able to spread the floor and make them make defensive decisions.”

The Sixers have become a pick-your-poison offense since Harden arrived. The Nets went all out to stop Embiid and were swept. The Celtics decided they were good with continuing to switch Al Horford onto Harden and The Beard cooked them for 45 points. Tyrese Maxey generated better looks than his shooting line would indicate — surely Boston will see that on film. Tobias Harris made timely buckets while De’Anthony Melton helped Harden carry the offense in the first half.

And then there’s Tucker, who not only scored zero points but didn’t even attempt a field goal. Yet, his impact was profound. Lately it’s been highlighted how much Tucker has been riding Reed. Tucker told reporters he cussed Reed out during halftime of Game 4 in Brooklyn. Then someone caught Tucker laying into Reed on the bench during a timeout after Horford grabbed a pair of critical offensive rebounds.

It was a Roy Kent-Jamie Tartt sort of moment.

“It’s so funny,” Maxey said, “because there was a play in the fourth where they got a barrage of rebounds — like three or four of them — and Horford ended up laying it up. And Doc called timeout and we came to the bench. And I literally thought Tuck was going to grab P-Reed out of his jersey. He said, ‘If you don’t get the next two rebounds, then we’re going to have a conversation.’ P-Reed got the next two rebounds. It was the like the big brother, little brother thing.”

Who knows how the rest of this series will unfold, but it’s clear: these Sixers have felt a little different and they continue to do things they couldn’t do before.

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