When Al Horford dunked with 3:51 left in the fourth to put the Celtics up 98-96, that old familiar feeling crept in.
Here we go again.
But the Sixers didn’t wilt. They fought back on the back of James Harden, who is having perhaps the most volatile playoff series in NBA history, to escape with a 116-115 overtime win.
Here are three takeaways from Game 4 as the series heads to Boston for Game 5 Tuesday all tied up at 2-2.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Harden
Harden scored 45 points in a vintage performance in Game 1. He followed that up by going 5 for 28 over the next two games. It was sort of anyone’s guess which version of Harden the Sixers would get in Game 4.
Turns out it was the former.
The Beard was absolutely masterful dropping a game-high 42 points on 16 of 23 to go along with nine assists and eight rebounds. The biggest adjustments for Harden were getting Jaylen Brown off of him for favorable switches and getting his midrange shot going again. It felt like a couple early layups and a second quarter middie barrage got Harden going.
For a guy that’s often been criticized for not rising to the occasion in the postseason, Harden hit a difficult floater to send the game to OT. Then knocked down a corner three for the game-winner. He also nailed the game-winning triple in Game 1. Big shots in big spots.
Since they switched to the current playoff format, Harden, Allen Iverson and Joel Embiid are the only Sixers who have scored 40-plus points in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Only Harden and Iverson have done it twice.
Harden’s success is presenting a bit of a dilemma for Joe Mazzulla. Malcolm Brogdon has been excellent offensively, but Harden has clearly targeted him defensively. When Harden can get the switch off Brown for either Brogdon or Horford, it’s been advantage Sixers.
Harden also had four steals and a block. It felt tone-setting — but more on that below.
Embiid gutting it out
Embiid got off a terrific start in this one. It was Harden that got going in the second, but it was Embiid who got the Sixers off to a strong start. He had 12 points in the period and helped his team build a 27-19 advantage.
In the second half, Embiid really struggled to score. He had 11 points but went just 3 of 12 from the field. You could see Embiid was battling out there and didn’t quite have the necessary lift to finish plays in the fourth quarter. Horford blocked him three times. Horford hasn’t hurt Embiid this badly since 2019-20. In all seriousness, Embiid has handled Horford fairly easily the last couple seasons. Something was off. Embiid admitted postgame that he was feeling tired in the fourth.
Luckily for the Sixers, Embiid had enough energy to score four points in overtime and find Harden in the corner for the game-winner. It’s not necessarily a performance you’ll look back on and think about how dominant Embiid was, but in this moment, you have to appreciate the way he gutted it out.
Another matchup problem for the Celtics is Robert Williams III. Williams has been outstanding protecting the rim (just ask Tyrese Maxey) but he’s almost unplayable when Embiid is on the floor. He’s not capable of guarding Embiid 1-on-1 and his presence allows Embiid to roam and protect the paint on the other end.
Winning plays and winning a game they never win
With the Sixers trailing 105-102 with 1:06 and the game nearly getting away from them, Playoff P.J. showed up. Off a Tobias Harris miss, P.J. Tucker grabbed an offensive rebound, finished the put back and was fouled. He finished the play by making the free throw and tying the game.
THAT is why you go out and sign P.J. Tucker. He’s willing this team to wins.
But it wasn’t just Tucker. It felt like the Sixers won way more of the 50-50 balls that doomed them to close Game 3. The rebounds were even at 52-52 and Boston had the slimmest of advantages on the offensive glass, 13-12.
A key to the win: turnovers. The Sixers had only seven for the entire game. Harden (one) and Embiid (two) both did an excellent job taking care of the ball, especially when you consider their respective usage rates. Harden had five in Game 3 alone. The message there being a miss is a better outcome than a turnover.
It becomes especially important against a team like the Celtics. The Sixers have actually matched up very well against Boston in the half court. It’s when the Celtics turn the Sixers over and catch them napping where trouble happens.
Overall, this is another game that falls into the “they never win this game” category. There were a bunch of those this season. Both victories in the series fall into it. Who knows if it will lead to a series victory, but these Sixers do have a toughness and resilience that previous iterations did not.