The Sixers entered TD Garden facing an exceedingly uphill battle. Oddsmakers, pundits, analysts, and opposing fans really weren’t giving your Philadelphia 76ers a chance.
The Sixers were 10-point underdogs to steal the opening game of the second-round series without their MVP, Joel Embiid, vs. the odds on Finals favorite Celtics.
Hypothetically, if I’d magically swooped down from the future and told “Monday afternoon you” that the 76ers did the unthinkable and won Monday in Boston, what would you have guessed went down?
Jayson Tatum accidentally elbows Jaylen Brown and broke his face again? Tyrese Maxey goes nuclear? James Harden throws back the clock and drops 45?
Well folks, those of you who picked door No. 3, along with a masterclass Paul Reed game, some clutch shooting from De’Anthony Melton in the first half, and general #MaxeyMayhem win the grand prize.
Shoutout to Sixers’ play-by-play announcer Kate Scott, who straight up warned us that Harden had a little something coming for all the haters this series.
MAXEY OFF THE STEAL— NBA (@NBA) May 2, 2023
SIXERS LEAD BY 1 WITH 0:28 TO PLAY.
: TNT | Game 1 | PHI at BOS pic.twitter.com/HfsrXMjyYa
After sweeping the Brooklyn Nets last month, Maxey, Reed, and co. helped earn their star 33-year old point guard’s previously ailing Achilles tendon a full nine days in between games, and it showed.
Harden dropped 45 points, six dimes, shot 7-of-14 from deep, including the game-winner with 8.4 to go. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are likely headed for All-NBA award honors. But it was James who was clearly the best player on the floor in that one.
The 10-time All-Star had the #burst to get by his initial man in round one. But we weren’t seeing any elevation to finish, and James’ struggles scoring around the cup were a big talking point over the last couple weeks.
And now vs. Boston, the on-ball stoppers were only going to be tougher to beat, right? This season’s reigning DPOY Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogdon, with one of Al Horford or Robert Williams waiting at the rack? Yeesh. The Celtics had the second-best defensive rating during the regular season for a reason.
On paper it was all one very, very big problem.
But as Chris Berman might say, that’s why they play the games!
Even more than the game-winning three, this was the "Oh it's like THAT" play from last night for me https://t.co/aL1QxPCrZO— Andrew Unterberger (@AUgetoffmygold) May 2, 2023
It was a Harden masterclass, as The Beard got to silence his many critics and play spoiler on the road. It was easily one of the best performances of the already electric 2023 NBA Playoffs, atop the list with the likes of Jimmy Butler and Steph Curry.
For Harden, he, “turned back the clock to his MVP year.”— Unimpeachable Listmaker (@Joel4MVP) May 2, 2023
For Curry, he, “showed why he is the greatest PG of all time.”
Harden dropped 45 in a close game without Embiid vs the NBA’s 3rd ranked defense. Curry dropped 50 at full strength in a blowout vs the 25th ranked defense.
After the game, Harden admitted his role has been to distribute for an MVP in Embiid, but he had this stuff in his bag all along.
He said this to the reporters on hand in Boston:
“I don’t need to make a statement. What happens internally with the 76ers organization — my coaches, my teammates, what they expect me to do — all throughout the year was be a facilitator and get Joel the basketball, and score when necessary. Joel wasn’t here tonight, and we knew that going into this series. Now it’s like, ‘All right, open the floor. James, you go be aggressive.’ And tonight I was aggressive. It’s not that I’m not capable of doing it; it’s just that this is my role for this team. Now, if you want me to do this tonight, then I can do that as well. I don’t think a lot of players can do that.”
We have known for some time that Harden tends to cook as a scorer more when Joel Embiid is not in the game:
Per @FantasyLabsNBA :— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) December 28, 2022
Harden w/ Embiid on, per 36:
16.8 pts, 11.3 ast, 5.7 reb, shooting 40% fg, 32% from 3, 5.8 FTA, TS% 56.5
Harden w: Embiid off, per 36:
27.8 pts, 9.3 ast, 6.9 reb, 47.4% fg, 42.4% from 3, 7 FTA, TS% 63.
Maybe room to grow as scorer when they share floor?
Obviously, when the 76ers are at their best, Harden is running two-man game with a healthy Joel. But his splits with and without JoJo do illustrate to a degree the sacrifice James is making as a bucket getter in Philly.
“I haven’t felt one of those zones in a minute, and it felt really good just to be aggressive and shoot the basketball and do what I want. (Laughs.) That felt really good. And I’m capable of doing it. It felt good to make shots, to give ourselves a chance on the road in Game 1, and to be aggressive. I mean, we won. That’s all that matters. I’m happy.”
It’s been said, but few players’ legacies would be amplified with a ring more than Harden’s.
Chris Paul and one Jimmy Butler could also do their legacies wonders with a Larry O.B. Obviously if either Steph Curry or LeBron James, set to square off now, wins another ring, that man would inch ever closer (or climb further up) Goat Mountain.
Speaking of Jimmy, Embiid had some frustrations playing alongside Butler once upon a time. Joel and Ben Simmons certainly weren’t always complementary pieces. And fans have noted that Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey have thrived as scorers in games Joel rests as well.
All of which to say, it’s easier for the #others to get going when a back-to-back scoring titlist, and perennial MVP candidate, isn’t out there. You can almost see the player’s mentality change, knowing that if they don’t get it done, they’re chum.
And it’s a small part of why fans clamored for head coach Doc Rivers to stagger Harden and Embiid’s minutes more throughout the regular season, instead of the all-bench minutes Doc preferred for the first two-thirds of the regular season.
Let Harden cook a little bit more, right?
Sixers win bumped em up from +950 to +550 to win the chip. pic.twitter.com/ZbgZn3zl5T— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) May 2, 2023
If Harden is going to stick around beyond 2023, Philadelphia may need more of these performances from him this series, and maybe even a couple after Embiid returns.
The stakes are so high this series. Win and you’re favorites to advance to the NBA Finals with home court over one of Miami or New York! Lose, and who knows what this team will look like?
We won’t know what percent health the MVP will be appearing at as he nurses a LCL sprain. There’s still so much uncertainty around the injury, who knows what we can expect when Embiid feels healthy enough to play?
Per Rivers, back around Christmas, when reports of Harden potentially returning to Houston first arose:
“This is a generational scorer that has taken [to] and decided to be a point guard,” Doc Rivers said postgame. “And that’s hard to do. ... Most people can’t do that — or will not do it is a better way of saying it. And the fact that he is willingly doing it, running the team, organizing us, it’s huge for us.”
“When told about Rivers’ comments Harden gave a similar look to the one that matches his now-famous GIF. It’s not that he didn’t appreciate his coach’s praise, it’s that Harden doesn’t really see this as anything transformative....
And you just got the sense at times throughout this season that a few of the Sixers players might have liked to see a slightly more distributed offense.
Joel didn’t say anything,” P.J. Tucker said. “Just called the play he wanted. That was it.”— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) November 14, 2022
So, he was calling his own number all night?
“They’re all for him anyways,” Tucker joked. “It’s just which one do you want to run?” https://t.co/lpQFB83v88
But all of that was out the window in Boston during Game 1. James Harden had to deliver, and he did.
Like he says, it’s been awhile since The Beard stepped into a zone like that. But what a stage to do it on, huh? Why go back to Houston when you can just make Philly the new “Clutch City?”
Paul Reed with absolute ice in his veins at the line late. Goes 4-4! pic.twitter.com/Ardu6yWOnJ— SPORTSRADIO 94WIP (@SportsRadioWIP) May 2, 2023
It was fitting that Reggie Miller, one of the all-time clutch road-warrior villains, a dude who has silenced the most deafening crowds in Jordan’s, Kobe’s, and Ewing’s respective houses, simply laughed a couple times after another Harden dagger left a raucous Boston crowd gasping for air.
The stakes have arguably not been this high for Philly since the Allen Iverson days. I swear I saw a couple crossovers Monday he’d have been proud of.