The Sixers (1-2) hosted the Boston Celtics (2-1) in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Sunday. Philadelphia needed to tie the series to avoid a 3-1 deficit heading back on the road. Boston wanted to take a strangle-hold 3-1 series lead before heading home for Game 5. James Harden flirted with a 42-point triple-double to lead the Sixers past the Celtics, 116-115, in overtime.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
The Celtics were without the services of Danilo Gallinari, who is out for the season as he recovers from a torn ACL in his left knee.
Joe Mazzulla started Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford.
All Sixers were available for Game 4.
Doc Rivers started Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
Right out of the gate, you could see the world of difference an aggressive Harden makes compared to what he was on Friday. The Harden Philadelphia got on Friday stalled the offense into nothingness with indecision and, frankly, fear after a couple of his layup attempts were smacked off the backboard by Robert Williams III. Game 3 was there for the taking, but Harden’s play was a significant reason why the Sixers couldn’t manufacture runs in the guts of the game.
The Game 4 transformation was night and day. Harden ate up every inch of space the Celtics gave him, opening the game with an aggressive pick-and-roll to get Embiid a score at the rim. He put pressure on the Celtics involved in the two-man action, forcing the white jersey in Embiid’s way to lift so that he could rifle the ball to his big man for an easy finish. Just a possession or two later, Harden found the corner and turned on the jets, buzzing to the rim for a layup that let everyone know he wasn’t messing around.
That was just the start of a masterful first half for Harden. It was his first sign of life since the sublime 45-point night he had to lead the Sixers to victory in Game 1. Most important was Harden’s downhill aggression. He found and executed on every single angle the Celtics gave him, blowing by to put pressure on the paint. He didn’t always score it himself, nor did he need to. His job was to make the Celtics converge and then make the best decision.
When we look back at Harden’s positive moments in this playoff run, his takeover when Embiid was on the bench in the first half is going to be up there with the Game 1 heroics. Embiid sat for four minutes in the second quarter, which means Rivers and company were asking Harden to pack the offensive punch while Paul Reed was there to relieve the MVP. In theory, you’re comfortable with that because that’s why you have multiple star players. But, given the way Harden played in Games 2 and 3, a lot hung in the balance for that stretch of minutes. Not to worry, Harden answered the bell and more.
No. 1 scored 12 points while Embiid was recharging on the bench, helping expand Philadelphia’s lead to 11 points. The best thing Harden did was navigate the offense at his own pace. If he couldn’t shake a defender in front of him, he didn’t try to force low-quality threes. Harden got them off balance and quickly planted forward to get the outside step, bursting into the paint to pressure Boston’s interior.
If the runway came to an end and a white jersey pressed up on his back hip, Harden slowed down before making his decision. Mind made, he pushed forward again, finding an opening for a floater or a midrange jumper. If the defender in his way played too high and lost his footing, Harden got back to his left hand for an explosive layup. He was much better about sneaking the ball past Boston’s interior size, too. Unlike in Game 3, Harden didn’t let his layups dangle in the air with early releases. He got right to the basket and left minimal space between his hand and the backboard, leaving little chance of a rejection without it being a goal-tend.
And then, of course, came the back-breaking threes. He dropped one in isolation after drawing a switch from Williams III on what should’ve been a four-point opportunity early in the second quarter. Harden then caught Brown sleeping on a screen, dropping a deep one after simply pivoting to face the basket. Harden wrapped up his absurd first half by drilling another step-back triple over Horford on a switch.
That was just the first 21 points, though. Harden wasn’t even close to being done. After some fireworks to lead the Sixers through the back-and-forth of the third quarter, Harden stepped up when the Sixers went silent in the fourth quarter. With the Celtics pressuring the Sixers to hold onto their lead in the middle of the fourth quarter, it was Harden who discarded Tatum on an isolation before dropping a floater to push Philadelphia’s lead back up to eight points.
Five minutes later, Boston had seized control and appeared ready to shovel dirt on the Sixers’ collective grave, leading by four points with two-and-a-half minutes to play in regulation. There was Harden again, flicking Brown ever so slightly off his path before rising into a midrange jumper to bring the Sixers within two points.
Even when Boston had an answer, draining a three on their possession to expand the lead to five points, Harden wasn’t raddled. He drew Malcolm Brogdon on a switch before bolting to the rim for a layup to bring the deficit to three points. And then, with yet another opportunity to put the Sixers on his back at the end of regulation, Harden delivered. He shook Horford, manufacturing a runway for himself to get downhill. He let fly a highly difficult floater just before Smart arrived to contest, tying the game with less than 20 seconds to play.
Rivers has spoken ad nauseam about the importance of trusting one another. Some might brush that off as coach speak. There’s a pecking order in any championship-contending offense. But, trust can be shaky, difficult to come by as intensity picks up and each play becomes increasingly important. On the final possession of overtime, with the Sixers trailing by two points, the pass went to Embiid around the elbow. He backed Tatum far enough down to elicit help off the strong-side corner from Brown. And that was when Embiid had a decision to make.
He could live and die with his own shot, as is expected of an MVP. Or, he could make Boston pay for double-teaming him — something that he’s failed to do in playoff series of the past. He chose the latter, finding Harden open in the corner with a (terrible) pass. And just as Harden did in Game 1, he saved the day. This one wasn’t quite as sexy as the heroic dagger he laced in Horford’s eye in Game 1, but it was as important as any three Harden has ever hit in his career. He knocked down the triple off of Embiid’s feed, giving the Sixers a lead they would not relinquish.
Weird Embiid game. Philadelphia is nowhere close to winning this game without him. On the basis of scoring and scoring alone, it was one of the better playoff games of his career. There’ll be more to say below. But, I do think Embiid deserves credit for asserting himself on the glass in a way that he didn’t for most of the season. Whether misses popped long off the rim or just fell off near the basket, Embiid hustled to secure the ball and end the Boston possession. It wasn’t one of his most effective shooting performances, but Embiid refused to let that dictate his play. There was no bad body language or hanging head, there was no moping up and down the floor. Embiid battled for position inside the arc all game long, refusing to allow the Celtics to take him out of the game on offense.
He never has been and never will be considered a scorer, and opposing teams certainly won’t treat him like one. But, Tucker commands respect from everyone because of how active he is. He doesn’t care if he doesn’t have the cachet of a stat sheet stuffer. Tucker went up to teammates throughout the fourth quarter, saying the magic words necessary to energize them. And with the Sixers’ hopes and dreams of a deeper playoff run fading with the tick of every second in the final minute of the fourth quarter, it was Tucker who hustled for an offensive rebound and put-back through a foul to draw the game-tying three-point play.
All of those intangibles and big-time energy plays that Tucker brings, it almost doesn’t matter when defenses treat him as a non-threat on offense. Boston had no problem selling out on him entirely to clog the lane in the first quarter. Embiid, Harden, and Harris all looked his way in the first quarter, the Celtics abandoning him to help their teammates defend. Tucker couldn’t make them capitalize.
He’s never going to command respect as an offensive player because he will always be the weak link. Defenses will adjust by treating him as a non-entity by default. The only thing Tucker can do is simply make those shots when they come his way. Not because defenses will eventually step back towards him. But, because defenses are willing to concede open threes to him.
Tucker is getting great looks. He simply has to knock them down. The more he misses, or the more he passes up those open looks, the more difficult it is to keep him on the floor. The question then becomes does Rivers adjust by taking him out of the game and forcing Boston to defend with everyone?
Philadelphia could’ve easily been up by 20-plus in the second quarter, nearing a runaway beatdown at home. But, the Sixers failed to capitalize on Boston’s slip-ups. Missing shots is understandable. Blowing layups is not. Whenever you see a fast break led by Harris or De’Anthony Melton, you almost want to close your eyes because what’s about to happen is not going to be pretty. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it hundreds of times: use a jump-stop.
Speaking of Harris, the Sixers could be up 3-1 in this series if he gave them anything on offense. That isn’t to say he’s the main point of blame that the series is only tied at two games apiece. But, the trend has always been that he hits a wall in the second round. Missing difficult shots is one thing. He’s not capitalizing on the open jumpers, and his control around the rim is non-existent when he’s trying to finish through traffic. Rivers referred to him as a Swiss Army knife during his pregame media availability. Right now, the only thing Harris is really doing to much effect is guard on the perimeter. To his credit, he’s doing as good a job of that as he can against Boston’s featured offensive players.
The Sixers had a couple of opportunities to close quarters with momentum and simply failed to put the Celtics away, squandering those opportunities. The first chance came at the end of the first half, Embiid beating the Celtics down the floor for a layup to give the Sixers a 16-point advantage. Then, the Sixers choked up the rebound on the second of two missed free throws by Brown, giving the shooter an open jumper at the same spot from which he had just missed twice. A Brogdon three, a Tatum jumper, and Embiid falling asleep and closing late on a Horford three drained that advantage down to just nine points.
The second instance wasted momentum came in the final two minutes of the third quarter. Harris buried a triple to put the Sixers up by 15 points, their second largest lead of the game. Then, Philadelphia surrendered a corner three to White and a layup to Tatum. It took a Maxey layup right before the buzzer to restore a nine-point edge heading into the fourth quarter. Two separate chances to put the game away, and the Sixers couldn’t close the door.
Embiid owes Harden a steak dinner because he saved the MVP from some brutal decision-making in the second half. I don’t know whether fatigue from playing every other day after an extended lay-off got to him or what, but Embiid’s shot selection was terrible in the fourth quarter. Missed shots around the rim happen, it doesn’t matter how big you are. You’re not going to stuff an interior defender through the hoop every time you get inside. But, Embiid left some meat on the bones with the shots he took. He fell a bit too in love with midrange jumpers, trying to shoot over multiple defenders at times. He wasn’t aggressive enough when Horford was on him in single coverage, either. Embiid telegraphed a jumper that his former teammate blocked with ease and then threw up a shot at the rim that had little chance of going in.
Those are bad decisions when we all know Embiid is capable of squaring Horford up and blowing around him for shots at the rim. It was a moment when the newly-minted MVP could’ve re-affirmed why he won the award. Instead, he shrunk a bit and needed Harden to pull him out of the fire.
The Sixers will sleep well on Sunday knowing the series is tied with three games to go. But, they regressed to all of their bad habits when Boston threatened to take a 3-1 lead. When things got tight and the clock struck closing time, Philadelphia began over-helping on defense. Far too many good looks from deep for the Celtics, all because the Sixers put themselves in position to have to scramble to recover.
The Sixers (2-2) will visit the Celtics (2-2) in Game 5 of this series on Tuesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.