Tim BontempsESPN6 minutes of reading
BOSTON — One tick after another ticked the clock. Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden continued to track both the basket and his defender, Boston Celtics center Al Horford, as they trailed by six in the closing seconds of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday night.
And Harden, like countless times before in his Hall of Fame career, saw the moment he could create the separation he needed to pull off his patented step-back jumper — and took it.
When the ball slowly slipped through the net for Harden on the night — tying his playoff career high with 45 points in the process — teammate Joel Embiid celebrated wildly on the sideline as Harden and the 76ers stole home court again. With a 119-115 win without him.
“I haven’t felt one of those zones in a minute,” Harden said afterward with a smile. “You know what I mean? Gotta be aggressive and shoot the basketball and do what I love.
“That was really good. … I could do that, so that was good. It was good to make those shots, to give ourselves a chance.”
When Embiid, who is dealing with a sprained lateral ligament in his right knee, was officially ruled out about 90 minutes before the start of Game 1 on April 20, few believed Philadelphia would have a greater chance.
But few believed Harden was going to turn in the best performance of his playoff career. He came out and hit his opening five shots, setting the tone for Philadelphia on a night in which the 76ers threatened to pull away from the start, thanks to Boston going 17-of-20 from the field in the first quarter alone.
It was almost entirely because of Harden that the game was still within striking distance.
“I thought he was in the right frame of mind tonight,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “He really did. I’m really happy for him because that tells you what he can do on any given night.
“The guy’s a Hall of Famer, and all you hear about him is other things. And he was awesome.”
With Embiid sidelined, Philadelphia focused on doing something the Celtics often do: try to beat Boston deep and win the math game. Harden — who finished the game 17-of-30 from the field, including 7-of-14 from 3-point range — made more than half the 3-point attempts of the entire Celtics team (26). Several (Boston finished with 10 triples).
None of them was bigger than his hit on Horford, which came after a wild drive that saw Malcolm Brockton throw a pass straight to Tyrus Maxey with 0.1 seconds left on the shot clock, allowing Maxey to run down the court. The ball for Philadelphia to take a one point lead.
When Jayson Tatum was fouled on the ensuing offensive possession, Rivers tipped Georges Niang to Paul Reed and Tatum hit his second free throw, electing not to use his final timeout, giving Harden a chance to hunt down the favored matchup instead.
And once Harden realized the Celtics weren’t going to send him a double team, he did just that.
“I came off the screen and I was wondering if they were going to put two on the ball,” Harden said. “So when I cross-screened and pulled the ball out, it was like, “Stay home, it’s one-on-one. … Then I look up and it’s me. [saying]’Well, this is what I work on every day.’
“Get the best available shot no matter what. And, you know … raise and shoot.”
Afterward, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was asked if he thought Boston should have tried to double-team Harden on that final possession instead of isolating Harden against Horford.
“We doubled up in the first half and they scored six points on double teams on Harden,” Mazzulla said. “Hindsight is always 20-20. If we didn’t double him, it would have been a great defense. If we doubled him, if they hit a shot, it’s like, ‘Why did we double him?’
But the Celtics didn’t double Harden, and he got up and buried a dagger into Boston and its sellout crowd of 19,156, giving the 76ers a huge victory.
The 76ers didn’t take back home-court advantage in the series, but they did without Embiid — who could be the NBA’s most valuable player Tuesday night, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic or Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. Winner will be named.
Now, with Embiid recovering from that sprained LCL, the 76ers have already accomplished what they set out to do upon arriving in Boston.
“I think we take pride in playing without the big fella,” 76ers forward PJ Tucker said. “As good as he is, I think it gives other people a chance to step up and play. James can do his thing, Tyrus is really good without Joe, and everybody else … everybody took a little step up with him. . . It’s like an honor for us.”
After Philadelphia’s Game 4 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, which completed a first-round sweep, it was a point of pride for Harden, who has focused on making sacrifices for the team’s improvement this season. But on this night, with Embiid sidelined, it wasn’t about making sacrifices — it was about being aggressive and trying to lead Philadelphia to victory.
“I don’t need to make a statement,” Harden said. “My coaches, my teammates, what they expect me to do all year is make Joel the basketball and score when he needs to. Joel just wasn’t here tonight, you know what I’m saying? And we knew coming into this series.
“Now it’s, ‘OK, open the floor. James, you be aggressive.’ Tonight, I was aggressive, so, it’s not that I can’t do it, it’s just … that’s my role for this team. Now, if you want, [what I did] Tonight, I can do that too.
“I don’t think many players can do that. So yeah, I appreciate that.”