“They never win that game.”
This was a common reaction to the Sixers’ startling Game 1 victory over the Celtics. Taking on perhaps the best team left in the playoffs, on the road, without Joel Embiid has simply never been a game you could envision the Sixers winning in the past. Yet, somehow, some way, led by a marvelous 45-point display from James Harden, the Sixers managed to win.
Games 2 and 3 were different stories entirely. Harden shot 5-of-28 across those two contests and completely shied away from his floaters, mid-range game, and overall aggressiveness that allowed him to take control to open the series.
But fast forward to Game 4, and the Sixers found a way to win again. And yet again, it was Harden’s brilliance that led the way. The Beard finished with 42 points on 16-of-23 shooting (including a 6-of-9 mark from three), eight rebounds, nine assists to only one turnover, four steals and a block. He was simply phenomenal, doing everything his team needed from more decisive drives and mid-range pull-ups, to bailout step-back threes and sharp kick-out passes.
After the Sixers led by as many as 16 points midway through the third quarter, the Celtics fought back to eventually take a lead for themselves late in the fourth. With Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey continuing to struggle (they finished the game a combined 9-of-27 from the field) and Joel Embiid having a rough quarter, it looked like Boston was going to turn the tide.
Harden ensured the Sixers didn’t let victory slip through their fingers.
He made a run of pivotal plays down the stretch to finish with 13 points (5-of-8 shooting and 2-of-2 from the free throw line), four rebounds, two assists and three steals in the fourth quarter and overtime alone.
Here’s how he did it.
7:57 left: trusting his floater
One of the keys to Harden’s success in Game 1 was that he didn’t just rely on attempts at the rim or his signature step-back threes. He was comfortable finding space in the mid-range and using both pull-up jumpers and floaters to give him extra counters against the Celtics’ defense, and he was at it again in Game 4.
Take his first fourth quarter bucket, for example. Even with Jayson Tatum guarding him, Harden doesn’t settle for a tough jumper. He crosses backwards beyond the arc and briefly hesitates, hinting at potentially taking a three-pointer which brings Tatum forwards. As Tatum shifts his momentum towards the perimeter, Harden puts his head down and drives straight into the middle of the paint. He has no issues taking some contact on the way before neatly dropping in a floater over Marcus Smart waiting under the basket:
7:25 left: a two-way sequence
Harden’s masterclass in this game was all about his offense, but he still made a few valuable defensive plays with his four steals.
Malcolm Brogdon flies down the floor here and has a good chance to collapse the Sixers’ defense, seeing as Georges Niang is on him and backtracking. Harden makes a well timed swipe at the ball to secure the steal and then leads the fast break perfectly:
As Harden darts up the floor he’s met by Tatum and Smart, so pulls the ball back to wait for his trailing teammates. As Embiid arrives and heads down the lane, Harden turns and takes a couple more dribbles to keep the Celtics’ attention fixed on him. Once Embiid is uncontested near the basket, Harden sends a bounce pass straight between Tatum and Al Horford to create an easy layup.
With a quick-thinking steal and patient dime, this sequence showed all parts of Harden’s IQ coming into play.
2:26 left: going back to the mid-range
There’s not much to say about the next bucket, except it’s one of the times Harden handled Jaylen Brown (who’s offered more resistance against Harden this series) with no issues.
The Sixers desperately needed a score here after giving up a four-point lead to the Celtics with less than three minutes to go. Harden has yet another chance to bail out the Sixers in isolation, and gets back into the lane with another crossover to his right. With a few dribbles he’s into the paint, stops on a dime as Brown is trying to usher him into a contest at the rim, and steps back into a short mid-range jumper:
1:50 left: targeting a weak link
Harden has had a ton of success attacking Malcolm Brogdon in this series. The 6-foot-5 Brogdon simply isn’t as athletic or tall as a wing like Brown, making it easier for Harden to get inside and get off attempts in the paint without worrying about such rangy contests.
Using guard screens is an effective way to get Harden the matchups he wants, and the Sixers utilize that well here as Maxey (guarded by Brogdon) screens for Harden to take Brown out of the play. Once Harden gets his screen, he keeps Brogdon guessing what’s next before calmly driving left with good burst to get all the way to the rim:
Brogdon is giving the Celtics efficient production on offense and averaging four made threes per game this series, but they have to worry about what to do with him on the other end of the floor if Harden can have his way like this.
15.9 seconds left: taking the game to OT
To secure overtime, Harden went back to attacking another favorable matchup. He was already facing Brogdon but used an Embiid screen to get switched onto Horford, someone who can’t keep up laterally when Harden wants to get inside.
Horford keeps up initially, but as soon as Harden snatches the ball back Horford can’t cope with the change of direction. Harden sends Horford the towards the wing and quickly cuts back to the paint to leave Boston’s big man trailing behind. As help arrives from Smart in a cluttered lane, Harden drops in a floater from the charity stripe to tie the game:
Which, from that distance with a good contest — not to mention with the game on the line — is awfully tough to do.
This may not be remembered like Harden’s final shot of the night, but it was a critical and highly difficult shot all the same. And a smart decision for Harden to get the best possible matchup before executing his biggest isolation play of the game.
18.2 seconds left: The game-winner
Finally, the play of the game.
Harden’s second game-winning three of the series.
“It was supposed to be a dribble-handoff,” Harden said when looking back at how it played out. “When we threw it to Joel, it was supposed to be a dribble-handoff where he dribble-handed off to me, but Jaylen Brown was denying me. So, I didn’t want to fight and the clock was running down. So, I just gave Joel space to do what he did. He got so far in the paint that I felt like Jaylen Brown wanted to help, so Joel made an unbelievable pass. Then catch and shoot.”
While there’s no way Brown should have doubled and left the strong-side corner open, Embiid deserves credit for capitalizing as well as he could have.
He gets deep into the paint against Tatum and jumps to ensure both Tatum and Brown leave their feet to contest, maximizing Harden’s space before passing out to the corner. Then Harden does the rest:
“I thought Al was going to be on me, and they switched the matchup,” Embiid explained after the game. “I had the decision to score or play the two-man game with James, and no matter who was on me I figured just go score. As I did, and as I saw JB [Jaylen Brown] help off the strong-side corner, that was an easy play.
“The trust we talked about all season long. That’s the same shot we got in games in the regular season, against Miami. I got to keep trusting my guys and he just made a great shot.”
All game long, Harden was phenomenal.
Now, we wait for Game 5. We wait to see if the Sixers get dominant Game 1 and 4 Harden, or Game 2 and 3 Harden. Or perhaps something in the middle?
We all know that 40-plus-point scoring outbursts every game aren’t realistic. All the Sixers need is for Harden to be solid. He just needs to keep leading the offense with his passing, keep getting into the paint to generate three-point opportunities for others, and maintain an aggressive, well-balanced scoring profile at all three levels of the floor. (And if he can maybe conjure up one more vintage masterclass, even better.)
If the Sixers can partner that with any improvement from Maxey and Harris, and Embiid bounces back from his second-half struggles (he still gutted out 34 points, 13 boards and four assists), they should have a great chance to win this series.