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James Harden Outshot The Celtics, Somehow

BOSTON, MA - MAY 1: James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers drives to the basket during Round Two Game One of the 2023 NBA Playoffs on May 1, 2023 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

James Harden kept getting the matchup the Sixers wanted. All game, the Sixers had used a pick and roll to get Celtics big man Al Horford on him. In the final seconds P.J. Tucker set a pick that got Horford switched onto Harden and set up the game-winning three-pointer. Philadelphia's 119-115 win gives them a 1-0 series lead.

The Sixers needed a big game from Harden with Joel Embiid stuck on the sidelines in Balenciaga sweats, and he delivered with 45 points and six assists. He did a lot of that work against Horford. Modern technology is so great that we can know exactly how well that strategy worked. Second Spectrum says the Sixers ran a pick and roll on Horford 16 times. They scored 25 points on those plays—about a point and a half per.

“I came off the screen,” Harden said of the game-winner. “And I was wondering if they were going to put two on the ball. It was just like, stay home—it’s a one on one. So then I’m looking up. And I’m just like, 'all right, this is what I work on every day.' Get the best available shot, no matter what, and just raise up and shoot it.”

All night Harden raised up. He made seven threes and shot 17 for 30 from the field. He only shot four free throws in Game 1, but he got his points all the same, and his 16 first-quarter points kept the Sixers within reach during a stretch in which the Celtics hit 17 of 20.

Harden did not have a great first-round series against the Nets. He shot just 5-for-21 at the rim, a grim 24 percent, and didn’t get to the line once until Game 3. Last night, Harden hit 3-of-5 at the rim and was just about as good everywhere else: 7-of-11 from midrange, 7-for-14 from three. Because the Sixers defense was awful, they needed every bit of those heroics. Embiid was out and his absence was obvious; 18 of Boston’s 38 first-quarter points came on layups and dunks within four feet of the basket. The Celtics finished the game with 66 points in the paint. Most of those nine close-up shots the Celtics took in the first quarter were completely uncontested. It was a miracle the Sixers were not run out of the building in the first.

Though the Sixers trailed by as many as 13, they were never really out of the game. They stayed within reach and basically waited for Boston to stop hitting everything. By halftime it was a three-point game. The Sixers stayed with what worked and ran those high pick-and-rolls basically all game. Tyrese Maxey had 26 points, mostly attacking off screens. “We felt like if we could get them going downhill instead of waiting,” Doc Rivers said. “Paul Reed and Tucker, we literally were setting our picks at half court—because the floor is wide—and I thought it got Tyrese downhill. It got James downhill.”

The Sixers defense never did find a way to stop Boston once the Celtics got a shot off. But the Sixers took 14 more shots—including 12 more threes—than the C’s because of an aggressive defense that had 10 steals. Boston turned it over 16 times in all, and the game turned on a big Sixers steal. Boston had the ball up a point with just under a minute left. They started their offense with 10 seconds left on the shot clock. The Sixers didn’t allow them get a good look. The Celtics passed the ball six times in those 10 seconds, and the last one was a killer: Malcolm Brogdon threw it right to Tyrese Maxey, who basically jogged down the court for a breakaway dunk.

The Celtics were big favorites in Game 1 and in the series. They shot 59 percent from the field—and they lost. Whether this is ominous or the sort of fluke outcome that's made possible by a big James Harden night is hard to say at this point. For the Sixers to win this series with Joel Embiid hurt, it will need to happen again. But Harden and company showed they're capable of it.

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