We know you’ve heard the story before. The Sixers, in prime position to win a pivotal second-round playoff game at home, couldn’t get their top star Joel Embiid enough help.
Looking to go up 2-1 in this best-of-seven series, the 76ers had an emotional beginning to the game, as their superstar received his MVP honor from NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver.
It must be so difficult to feel all of those feelings, hold your child, thank your parents, thank your fiancé, all standing besides you, and then suddenly switch gears and do battle with Jayson Tatum and co. mere moments later.
On top of all that, Embiid isn’t fully healthy, still nursing his LCL sprain.
But the MVP still showed up, looking much healthier than his return in Game 2. Joel had 30 points, four blocks, three assists, shot 9-of-19 from the floor, and 11-of-12 from the charity stripe in the loss.
Doc Rivers said Joel Embiid felt “great” today after Game 3.— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) May 6, 2023
Rivers said the Sixers had a long film session today, are in a better place after going over last night’s loss.
And despite the result, if The Process is improving health wise without setback, that bodes well for Philadelphia’s chances to win ballgames moving forward.
The real problem Friday was the rest of the Sixers couldn’t pull enough weight to get a major playoff win.
Tyrese Maxey was just just 4-of-16 from the floor, Tobias Harris a measly 3-of-6 dealing with foul trouble the whole way, and of course, James Harden seemed to struggle the most of all.
It was Joel, P.J. Tucker, and De’Anthony Melton who really showed up. The rest of the gang could have offered more.
After dropping 45 points and carrying this team (without Joel) to victory in Game 1, Harden looked unbelievably, harrowingly, out of sorts in Game 3.
It was kind of eery.
And no, I’m not buying the “he had more rest before Game 1” stuff I read on Twitter because we’ve seen James play limited with injury in the past. He doesn’t whiff on basic reads or kick-outs or pocket passes to the degree we saw Friday. That was something else.
After the game, Harden was a bit briefer with reporters than usual, understandably frustrated with the team’s loss.
The 10-time All-Star, now 33, talked about the difference in this one, where Boston won 114-102.
“Scoring. We didn’t score the basketball. We didn’t play well offensively. Simple,” the 2018 league MVP told reporters in the locker room.
James finished with 16 points, 11 assists, and six boards, shooting just 3-of-14 from the floor, and just 2-of-7 from distance. His five turnovers were especially baffling, as he looked totally hesitant at times, failing to make routine kick outs that the regular season assist king typically makes in his sleep.
This play in particular, had the crowd groaning, and you didn’t have to be a traumatized Sixers fan to get some Ben Simmons “the pass” vibes after this one:
JB had Harden SHOOK. Passed up a WIDE OPEN FLOATER & nearly turned it over. This happened many times last night. pic.twitter.com/5hFj4YhLzw— ☘︎ (@CelticsRepublic) May 6, 2023
Of course he made some good plays as well, which the Sixers (occasionally) knocked down:
Good read from Harden and it's on the Sixers to try and use the Celtics gameplan against them. Embiid screens, G. Williams in a drop. Harden snakes back to his left. Brown trying to recover, GW still engaged. Tatum sells out on the pocket pass and it's a skip to Melton for 3. pic.twitter.com/ixeL0yAsaf— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 6, 2023
And had other players hit more shots, everything else might have opened up for him too. There are certainly feedback loops at play here.
He took some good shots and he made some decent reads, but the results were abysmal and he simply appeared to lack confidence... which is frankly bizarre just a couple days removed from his coldblooded, reptilian response to the high pressure up in Boston last Monday.
Harden was asked about some of those looks he did not opt to shoot this time around Friday.
“I don’t know. I’ve got to watch the game, but I’m pretty good on basketball instincts. I know when to score, I know when to pass, so I’m pretty sure a lot of them were the right play.”
The Celtics have made a key adjustment since Game 1. Rather than putting guys like Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdan on him, and trying their darnedest but failing to keep Al Horford from switching onto him, like we saw in his 45-point gem, Boston deployed Jaylen Brown as Harden’s primary defender. They’re shading second defenders at him more, leaving wide-open guys like P.J. Tucker, even in corners.
Boston has even been sending third defenders for times Harden looks to run pick-and-roll with Embiid. And the strategy looked effective for the Celtics through the last couple ballgames.
Harden was asked if there was something the Celtics did to limit him after Friday’s crushing defeat.
“Nope,” Harden said succinctly.
Does he think it would be good to get Tyrese Maxey more involved?
“Yeah, we would love that.”
Harden’s answer that he’s “pretty sure a lot of them were the right play,” have some fans and media members drawing connections to Ben Simmons, who famously struggled in big playoff spots alongside Joel, and struggled with accountability at times on top of it.
Maybe the biggest thing Harden + Simmons have in common -- and the thing I really can't believe we've had to live through twice now -- is the absolute refusal mid-meltdown to acknowledge that anything even slightly weird is happening. https://t.co/iunUeykQ45— Andrew Unterberger (@AUgetoffmygold) May 6, 2023
Perhaps if Harden simply said ‘I played like trash, I’ll figure it out,’ fans would feel slightly better about the team’s chances in a now must-win Game 4. But at the end of the day, his approach or what he says to reporters matters little compared to the on court play we get. After all, this is the same dude who was out in Vegas before his Game 1 explosion. Whatever works, as long as it works from this point on....
Doc Rivers echoed Harden’s sentiment that it would help to review film before making any hasty conclusions about Game 4.
“I’m going to go watch it,” Rivers said after the L. “I just didn’t think we had any pace. We had stretches in the game where I thought we went downhill with speed and force, we made the right plays. And then we had stretches where we just didn’t. So I’d rather watch the game first, then I’ll answer that question.”
What about the shots Harden simply turned down?
“I don’t know, I’ll go look,” Rivers said. “I thought there were a couple of times where we came out of a timeout and I really thought we had the lane. I thought we were trying to snake dribble more than just go straight down and make plays. That’s something we talked about, getting into the paint with force, with pace. And if they come, let’s make plays. Just didn’t think we did that. So we’ll figure it out. We’ll be good.”
Embiid was asked how he personally might be able to help his co-star thrive.
“You just talk to him and you just keep telling him to keep shooting, be aggressive,” the MVP offered. “That’s why you can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. Some nights you’re going to make a lot of shots, a lot of tough ones, and some nights you’re not going to make ‘em. So it’s about finding other ways to impact the game. For example, for myself, if I’m not making shots, I know that I’ve got to take another step defensively. I’ve got to become like Bill Russell defensively to have a bigger impact. In that situation, that’s the way I see it. Got to get my teammates more involved. And as far as for him, obviously, it’s up to him to figure out how to best help us. But like I said, he’s fine. Sometimes you make ‘em, sometimes you miss ‘em. We made a lot of shots in Game 1. The last two games, it hasn’t been going in. I have the trust in him. Just telling him to keep being aggressive and keep shooting.”
Our Jackson Frank noted on Twitter that the Celts sending that third guy at the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll has really been causing problems for Philly.
The Harden-Embiid PnR was the bedrock of the Sixers’ elite offense all season and the Celtics have completely neutralized it the last two games, especially today. Automatic rotation with a 3rd defender to the nail almost every time to disrupt all rhythm.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 6, 2023
The bottom line is this: Harden needs to find a way to remain in attack mode and look to score the ball. If he can take and make those midrange jumpers and floaters he’s getting, that will make it more challenging for Joe Mazzulla’s defense to swarm Embiid at the nail. It will make the Sixers less predictable. And it’ll start to buy James (and others) more space to work. For example, if you’re not remotely worried about him driving and finishing, you can simply sit on his step back.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Harden shook that one off and returned to form. And to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t be stunned if a performance as odd as we saw bled into Game 4. I’m in wait-and-see mode because unlike these Ben Simmons comps we’re seeing, we’re in total Jekyll and Hyde territory here. We need Hyde, the Mr. Mayhem side back.
If the Sixers can at least tie this series up a 2-2, they’ll still be underdogs, but as Embiid gets healthier, you couldn’t count them out to steal one more up in Boston. I think James needs to pick a really flashy outfit for the next ballgame.