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BOSTON — Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden very well might be the best isolation scorer to ever pick up a basketball. If not, he’s on a very short list. And with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in the balance on Monday night, he wasn’t sure if the Boston Celtics would give him the chance to go one-on-one with Al Horford.
“P.J. (Tucker) set the screen, I came off the screen and I was wondering if they were going to put two on the ball,” Harden said. “And so when I pulled the ball back out, it was just ‘stay home,’ it’s a one-on-one. So then, I’m looking up and I’m just, ‘All right, this is what I work on every day.’ ”
Tucker set a screen for Harden and the Celtics didn’t double. Harden went into his isolation routine and fired a 3-pointer over Horford, his seventh of the night. It gave the Sixers a two-point lead in TD Garden with 8.4 seconds left, a lead they would not relinquish.
The Sixers beat Boston 119-115. And that was for several reasons, but Harden’s 3-pointer over Horford was a fitting coda to a masterful individual performance by one of the sport’s all-time players: 45 points on 17 of 30 from the field, six assists and just three turnovers. The Sixers own a 1-0 lead over the title-favorite Celtics primarily because Harden willed them to it.
“I’m so happy for him, because it just tells you what he can do on a given night,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “And then he can be your point guard on given nights. It’s amazing, the guy is a Hall of Famer and all you hear is the other stuff about him, you really do. He was fantastic.”
Exactly one year ago this week, the Sixers went to Miami under the same circumstances: Joel Embiid was out for two games with an injury (although the Sixers haven’t ruled him out for Game 2 in this series yet) and the rest of the team was looking to steal a game. They didn’t come close, getting drubbed twice and giving themselves little margin for error once Embiid did return to the series.
They only needed one game this time around. As Rivers put it, “That’s the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team. We have a bunch of street fighters.”
One of those street fighters is Paul Reed, who is Embiid’s replacement. That also was the case last season in Miami, but in those games, the Sixers elected to start DeAndre Jordan to preserve Reed’s fouls. Fast forward one year and Reed is a far more disciplined player. After playing a career-high 32 minutes in the closeout win over Brooklyn, he turned around 37 in Game 1 against Boston.
The man also known as “Bball Paul” has overcome adversity in his career, but also in the guts of Game 1. With 1 minute, 14 seconds left in regulation, Horford put up Boston 113-110 after the Celtics got two offensive rebounds. Most nights, that type of possession would be a killer.
According to Rivers, the Sixers certainly reacted like it was a potential backbreaker. The ensuing timeout huddle was heated, with P.J. Tucker among those directing his ire at Reed after Boston scored on their third chance.
“A couple of guys really got into him, and it was close to excessive,” Rivers said. “And I kept him in and I said, ‘Hey, go win the game, go do something for us.’ But it was pretty harsh. We got to get better at that probably with him.”
Rivers has coached Reed hard for his entire career, so for him to say that carries some extra weight. But Reed responded and helped the Sixers win. On the very next possession, Harden gave him a runway with a pocket pass. After he was fouled, Reed made two pressure free throws.
And then after getting a steal on the Celtics’ go-ahead possession, he made two more free throws to ice the game. Reed was already a fan favorite in Philadelphia, but with performances like this, he’s quickly reaching folk hero status. Reed’s ability to stay calm in key moments has proven to be a major asset for the Sixers.
“You know how it is in professional sports, everybody wants to win and tensions get high,” Reed said. “But to remain cool, calm and collected when the tensions get high is the key. We got to stay together in moments like that. And I was just glad we were able to stay together and not, like, freak out.”
There were other reasons the Sixers are different from last season. After being shut down by Boston during the season, not having the touch from 3-point range and banging knees during the game, Tyrese Maxey just kept attacking en route to 26 points. Tobias Harris delivered another steady performance with 18 points.
De’Anthony Melton delivered some huge minutes, going 5 of 6 from beyond the arc en route to 17 points. Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey targeted tough-minded players such as Tucker, Melton and Reed this offseason, and they helped the Sixers win the possession battle on a night Boston was running the ball down the Sixers’ throats.
The stats from the first quarter were grizzly: Boston shot 17 of 20 from the field and had a whopping 26 points in the paint. At halftime, the Sixers were surrendering 72 percent shooting.
“And we’re only (down) three points,” Harden said. “So we just play a little bit of defense and we give ourselves a chance.”
The Sixers mixed in some zone and played just enough defense, particularly down the stretch. Perhaps the biggest swing of the game came with 30 seconds left and the Sixers down one. They had their best defensive possession of the game and forced a 24-second violation, but there was one catch: Malcolm Brogdon threw the ball directly to Maxey.
If Maxey caught the ball in time, it was with a tenth of a second left on the shot clock left. So there he was, racing to the other end and making the biggest play of the game, unsure if it would count.
“I’m running and I don’t know if I heard the whistle or the horn,” Maxey said. “I was about to pick the ball up and I’m so glad I just kept going. But man, just right place, right time.”
For the entire season, the thought was that the Sixers only needed a competent version of Harden to make a deep postseason run: Something like 16 and 10 on good efficiency, making sure the offense runs properly. But that was when Embiid was healthy and destroying the entire NBA. Embiid was not available against the Celtics, so the Sixers needed a vintage Harden performance. They got it.
And one of the keys schematically was setting screens near half court for Harden. Horford and the Celtics were primarily in a deep drop coverage and that allowed Harden a path for pull-up 3s.
“I was aggressive. And it’s not that I’m not capable of doing it, it’s just this is my role for the team. Now if you want me to (score) tonight, I can do that as well. I don’t think a lot of players can do that.”
What made this performance even more incredible is that it was unclear whether Harden was still capable of something like that. After a series in which he shot 9 of 34 from 2-point range, he went 10 of 16 against Boston in Game 1.
Some of that was likely because of an excellent game plan from Rivers, who continues to do his best work coaching short-handed. And some of it was likely because of the eight days Harden had off in between series. He looked fresher than he has ever looked since injuring his Achilles in late May, blowing by Boston defenders like it was 2017 all over again.
After the game, Harden was seen waving his celebrating teammates off the floor.
“That’s one game,” he yelled at them.
While it was one game, it was also a signature performance by a player who has been criticized for his muddled playoff history. And for a Sixers team desperately looking to bide time for their injured star, it could not have come at a better time.
“I haven’t felt one of those zones in a minute,” Harden said. “And it felt really good.”
(Top photo of James Harden and Al Horford: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)