James Harden’s Stepback Three On Al Horford Gave Philly A Shocking Game 1 Win Over The Celtics Without Joel Embiid

The Philadelphia 76ers came into Monday’s second round opener in Boston as double-digit underdogs after Joel Embiid was officially ruled out of Game 1. Facing a Celtics team at full strength without their MVP candidate, all eyes turned to James Harden to see if he could step back into the 1A role once again and give Philly a chance.

It became quickly apparent that the Rockets version of James Harden was in the building for Game 1, and he would not let the Celtics pull away at any point in the game. Harden had 45 points, setting a new playoff career-high, on 17-of-30 shooting to go along with six assists, as he put forth one of the best offensive performances of his Hall of Fame career. What was maybe most impressive in his performance was he didn’t do it by grifting his way to the free throw line (where he was 4-of-4), but did so by way of sheer shotmaking craft, drilling shot after shot, including 7-of-14 from three-point range, to give the Sixers a chance down the stretch.

While Boston briefly took a 12-point lead in the second quarter, they could never get enough stops to put Philly away, and as the Sixers grew more and more comfortable in the game, they started to believe they could steal one without their MVP.

In the fourth quarter, the two teams traded the lead back-and-forth as both teams’ stars had it going, with Jayson Tatum scoring 39 points on 14-of-25 shooting, dueling with Harden throughout. Boston appeared like it had briefly taken control late, after Al Horford and Marcus Smart combined to keep a possession alive on the offensive glass, with Horford ultimately getting a bucket to push Boston’s lead up to three with just over a minute to go.

After Paul Reed hit a couple of clutch free throws to keep the Sixers within a point, the Celtics had one of their worst offensive possessions of the game. Philly ratcheted up the pressure and forced the Celtics into a number of late clock passes, as Boston seemed unaware of the shot clock creeping towards zero. When the ball got in Malcolm Brogdon’s hands with under two on the clock, he dribbled into the lane and fired a pass straight to Tyrese Maxey, who had no one between him and the rim on the other end to give Philly a one-point lead.

It was a dreadful play by Brogdon (who was otherwise great with 20 points off the bench), as he was both was unaware of the clock and threw a pass to no one in particular, compounding what would’ve been a bad shot clock violation and turning it into a go-ahead bucket for the Sixers. From there, Boston would get back in front on a pair of Tatum free throws, setting up a Sixers possession where the world knew who would have the rock.

For some reason, Boston conceded a switch to let Harden go to work on Al Horford, with Marcus Smart switching out to PJ Tucker (who had not taken a shot all game). With the big man wary of Harden driving by him, the former MVP sized him up for his patented stepback and found the bottom of the net to push Philly back up by two.

Boston’s final possession didn’t even yield a shot attempt, as Marcus Smart got stripped going up in the lane and then Tatum fouled Reed going for the rebound. Reed would again calmly knock down his two free throws to put the game on ice and give the Sixers a truly stunning Game 1 win.

Given Embiid’s knee injury, stealing one in Boston to get homecourt without him is massive for Philly’s chances in the series. While there was pregame optimism that Joel would be back for Game 2, we’ll see if swiping the opener makes the Sixers more cautious with the star big man to try and buy him even more rest, or if they’ll look to build on the momentum coming out of this win by bringing him back and trying to get both on the road to open the series.

In any case, it was a virtuoso performance from Harden, who turned back the clock to go from a facilitator to a flat-out scorer, carrying the Sixers offense in a way we haven’t seen him do in a few years. He did get plenty of help, as the Sixers offense as a whole was humming, with 26 points from Tyrese Maxey and 17 points (including 5-of-6 from three) from De’Anthony Melton off of the bench. Still, it was the Harden show and while we likely won’t see this kind of game from him again this series, having him operating at a high level as a scorer only further stresses the Celtics defense.

That Boston defense is also the cause for concern for Celtics fans, as they have been rather dreadful all postseason, regularly giving up 30-point quarters (allowing three more tonight). Boston’s offense was not the problem, as they shot 58.7 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from three, but they just could not get the stops they needed, without having the excuse Philly has of not having their best backline defender. If there was any let-off with the Embiid news before the game, Boston certainly should feel a sense of urgency no matter who is starting for the Sixers in Game 2, as they look to even the series before heading down the road to Philly.