James Harden Dominates, Sixers Stun Celtics to Take 1-0 Series Lead
James Harden dominated, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a stunning 119-115 win over the Boston Celtics without Joel Embiid.
3 observations after Harden explodes for 45 in thrilling Game 1 win over C’s originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
BOSTON — James Harden shattered his previous scoring high as a Sixer and stunned the Celtics on Monday night.
Harden exploded for 45 points, including a go-ahead three-pointer over Al Horford, and the Sixers took a 119-115 victory at TD Garden in Game 1 of their second-round series without Joel Embiid, who was sidelined by a right knee sprain.
Tyrese Maxey had 26 points. Celtics star Jayson Tatum scored 39 points.
The Celtics will host Game 2 on Wednesday night. Here are observations on an Game 1 win for the Sixers:
Harden money in the mid-range
Following the Sixers’ final practice of a lengthy stretch in between the first and second rounds, Harden emphasized that he had to play a more aggressive style without Embiid. He also said the Sixers needed to “have that swagger to go in there and have that confidence that we’re winning Game 1.”
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He absolutely backed those words up in the game’s predictably frenetic opening minutes. In a spurt reminiscent of his big opening-night performance against Boston, Harden drilled three straight mid-range jumpers and then nailed back-to-back three-pointers. A Maxey triple gave the Sixers a 19-13 lead.
Harden’s mid-range success was an especially encouraging aspect of his start to this season. Though the Sixers always like to see the 10-time All-Star driving hard downhill and reaching the paint regularly, his mid-range craft is a valuable tool that he pulled out early Monday night.
After a series of woeful finishing against the Nets in Round 1, Harden made a sound adjustment to trust mid-range shots with his feet planted under him and avoid any in-the-lane awkwardness. He lofted in a floater late in the first quarter, too, and certainly looked like a player who’s led the league in scoring three times.
Sixers stops hard to come by
Disappointingly, the Sixers still faced a seven-point deficit after the first period despite Harden’s 16.
That’s because Boston wasn’t too far from playing a flawless quarter offensively. Over the first 12 minutes, the Celtics shot 17 for 20 from the floor. They punished practically every single Sixers miscue … and there were quite a few. Replacement starter Paul Reed forced a shot up inside against Al Horford and got rejected, leading to a fast-break Tatum dunk. Several Celtics leaked free in the half court for slams stemming from overzealous, unfocused or confused Sixers defense.
Jaylen Brown, Tatum and Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon all had plenty of opportunities to attack in transition and were fantastic in seizing those chances. The Sixers were surely grateful that De’Anthony Melton matched Brogdon’s early scoring. Melton caught fire in the second quarter, made all five of his long-distance jumpers in the first half, and scored 17 points before intermission. He also flashed his versatility late in the second quarter by accepting a Harden pass on the short roll and then dishing to Tobias Harris for a catch-and-shoot wing three.
By the middle of the second quarter, Reed appeared to grow frustrated with how the night was unfolding. His teammates expressed annoyance and displeasure on a few occasions as well; Harden was not infrequently exasperated by when and how Reed set screens. Reed and the Sixers stuck with it, though. After an extended timeout conversation with Harden, Reed scored his first two hoops of the night late in the second period.
He ultimately set a new career high in minutes for a second straight game, going 37 and posting 10 points and 13 rebounds. Though the Sixers played a bit of small ball, Reed took on an Embiid-like load. The team used a three-man bench of Melton, Jalen McDaniels and Georges Niang. With the idea of adding an athletic, veteran wing defender familiar with playing alongside Harden, it would make sense if Danuel House Jr. became part of the Sixers’ rotation in Game 2.
Thanks to a driving Tatum layup, the Celtics finished the opening half sweetly. The Tatum-Brown duo incredibly combined for 42 first-half points on 17-for-22 shooting.
Sixers keep punching back
As they knew they needed to, the Sixers decisively won the possession game Monday.
They forced 16 turnovers, only committed eight, and did a lot well besides watch Harden’s brilliance. A Harden three early in the third built their lead to 83-77.
Boston seemingly had answers every time, though, and both Maxey and Harris had narrow missed on decent looks. Maxey was also irritated by foul trouble and a collision that caused him to limp off and spend a couple of minutes on the stationary bike in the third quarter.
Simply having Harden on their team was sufficient for the Sixers to stay close. A pair of fourth-quarter step-back threes lifted him over 40 points and gave the Sixers a 102-100 edge.
Harden wasn’t perfect, however, and the Celtics capitalized on the moments when he didn’t come through in the clutch. After Harden was whistled for an offensive foul against Horford, Marcus Smart cut free along the baseline and made an and-one layup through Harden’s contract. Smart’s foul shot put Boston up 111-107.
Horford delivered several big plays late against his former team, including a block on Maxey that the third-year guard was emphatic should’ve been a foul. He also pulled down a very timely offensive rebound and scored inside to extend the Celtics’ edge to three points with 1:14 remaining.
Still, the Sixers kept conjuring impressive answers. Reed hit two foul shots and Maxey capped an excellent defensive possession with a steal and go-ahead layup with 28.9 seconds left.
Reed stepped up and drained two win-sealing free throws with 4.6 seconds to go, wrapping up a memorable victory that required immense resilience on top of an all-world Harden night.