Harden at free throw line; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers visited the Boston Celtics to kick off the 2022-23 NBA regular season. Philadelphia wanted to make a statement with a road victory against the reigning Eastern Conference champs. Boston wanted to defend its reign with a home victory over the rival Sixers. James Harden put forth a 35-point, 7-assist effort, but the Celtics got 70 from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to send the Sixers to a 126-117 defeat on opening night.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

All Sixers were available for the season-opener. 

Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Celtics were without Robert Williams III, who is recovering from left knee surgery. Danilo Gallinari is out for the season with a torn left ACL.

Joe Mazzulla started Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford.


There’s a long, long way to go. But, Harden got off to a marvelous start. He scored 16 points in the first 12 minutes of the game, playing the entire first quarter. He finished the first half with 22 points. More important than the output is the efficiency. Harden connected on 5 of his 9 field goal attempts in the first frame, four triples among them. He also got to the line for 8 freebies to compliment his 5 made field goals. Harden looked very comfortable isolated against a variety of athletic, like-sized-or-bigger defenders. It didn’t really matter who Boston switched onto him, Harden was able to put the ball on the deck and use tight ball-handling to create space. Getting his counterpart off balance with the dribble moves, Harden self-created all of his three-point makes.

I don’t really have a problem with Harden not attacking the basket when he gets defenders off balance in this matchup. Boston has rangy helpers in either driving lane, and driving into congestion just asks for trouble. If you have the perimeter shooting in your repertoire, there’s no reason to over-complicate possessions by attacking the paint. 

The earliest sign of chemistry came courtesy of Harden and Tucker. The free-agent forward didn’t do much to affect the box score in the first half. But, there were moments of brilliance. Harden absorbed multiple defenders on a drive to the rim and flipped a ridiculous pass to Tucker in the corner for a wide-open three. There were also some quick pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs with Harden in which Tucker slipped out early to relieve the pressure on Harden and advance the play to someone else while the Boston defense converged on the bearded one. It will average out into productive offense as these guys grow together. But, it was a nice glimpse at how quickly this offense can operate when it hits its stride.

Just when the Celtics seemed ready to pull away at the end of the third quarter, the Sixers went to Maxey and he responded quite nicely. Incomprehensible that it took the Sixers so long to get him involved.


The Sixers really struggled to find an offensive mojo early in this game. But, that’s not exactly surprising given that it’s the first regular season game. You have some nerves and some fits that are still uneven. Doesn’t make it any easier that you’re trying to figure all of these things out on the fly against an elite Celtic defense. Nonetheless, I didn’t love the early offensive strategy. Embiid got the first touch or two of the game. And then once Boston started to junk up Philly’s offense, the Sixers went away from their best player. Instead, Harris turned into a pick-and-roll ball-handler, lofting up a floater on one possession. On another possession, they went to Harris on a post-up — no dice.  

That isn’t to say that I have any problem with going to Harris for looks beyond catch-and-shoot threes. After all, he is an overqualified fourth option in this offense. Rather, I don’t think going to him when an elite opponent is off to a quick start while your team is reeling is the right decision. That’s when you want to affirm to your team that the offense flows through your best two players. When things get tough, the offense is going to flow through them anyway. Establish the pecking order. 

Embiid had a horrendous first half. He looked disengaged on offense when things didn’t run through him. But, he also struggled when things did run through him. Every time he caught the ball in the post, Boston sent help his way, refusing to let him operate against individual defenders. Embiid really struggled finding plays for his teammates, making increasingly slow decisions as the first half went on. And when Embiid did put the ball on the deck, he lost control of the ball as helpers converged to junk up his dribble.

It didn’t get any better in the second half for Embiid. He finished the game with 26 points and 15 rebounds, but also committed 6 turnovers. Most discouraging was his body language. He moped around the floor throughout this game, missing shots that he usually makes and committing turnovers that have become uncharacteristic of his game in recent years. There were times when his teammates wanted to speed up the offense, but had to wait because he was not moving up the court with any urgency. Much of the national content in recent weeks suggests that Embiid will be in good position to win his long-coveted MVP this season if he performs at the level he has the last two seasons. This was not a good start to a campaign that many voters will watch closely as they get Jokic MVP fatigue. 

Didn’t feel like the Sixers did nearly enough to involve Maxey in the offense in this game. He had a couple drives to the bucket and knocked down a three off the catch. But, I thought the Sixers could’ve weaponized his speed more than they did. Harden’s success as a facilitator in this game made Maxey’s lack of involvement all the more baffling. Harden was looking for anyone to dish to, and the Sixers did pretty much nothing to utilize his growth as a catch-and-shoot sniper. They experimented with Maxey running Iverson actions in the preseason, á la Seth Curry in his time with the Sixers. I didn’t see any volume of that in this game. 

The Sixers’ defense reeked of new philosophies. They’re trying to integrate switching, and their offseason moves deeply reflected that. But good grief, way too many open shots for the Celtics in this one. There was far too much confusion maneuvering around off-ball screens, which left the likes of Jaylen Brown completely unattended for catch-and-shoot threes when the ball swung to the opposite side of the floor. The good news is that it would be difficult for the defense to get worse!

The Sixers (0-1) will open their home schedule against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.


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