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May 05, 2023

Instant observations: James Harden meltdown dooms Sixers vs. Celtics in Game 3

The Sixers gave homecourt advantage back to the Boston Celtics thanks to a disastrous James Harden performance, losing Game 3 at home by a 114-102 margin.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• In predictable fashion, the Celtics got out to an early 10-point lead against the Sixers, staring down a raucous crowd and a charged-up Sixers team with no care for the moment. Give them credit — Boston looked well on their way to taking the sting out of this building.

And then Joel Embiid gave everyone a reminder of exactly why he won the MVP trophy this year. You could hardly tell this is a guy dealing with a knee injury, with Embiid bringing violence to the Celtics at the rim whenever Boston players made an attempt to challenge him. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are the best attackers the Celtics have to offer, and they came away from one-on-one battles against Embiid looking rather pedestrian.

The bigger swing factor, however, may well have been a Celtics lineup choice. Joe Mazulla brought Robert Williams III in the game fairly early in this one, and it helped the Sixers out on multiple fronts. For one, Embiid didn't have to do a whole lot of running on defense with Williams in, which allowed him to save his legs for the other end of the floor. And on offense, Williams cannot guard Embiid, so the Celtics often used other, much smaller players to match up with him, and that didn't go all that well.

What I thought stood out in the first half for Embiid was the variety of ways he scored — there was some off-ball movement for short catch-and-shoot jumpers on top of the usual array of moves from the elbow or the block, Embiid using his feathery touch about as often as his raw power. Through the first two games he has played in this series, I've been pretty shocked at his movement and explosion, which I figured would be hovering around half of what he normally has.

Honestly, I just came out of this game feeling bad for him. He put it all on the line out there, struggling with his touch from the midrange but finding ways to put points on the board anyway, trying to will his team to a victory they never came that close to. You would have thought it was the rest of the roster carrying significant injuries, with Embiid showing more fight on the boards in the fourth quarter than anybody else on the team. Two offensive rebounds in a row for a putback layup at the 3:55 mark felt like a potential turning point — the crowd went ballistic, and the Sixers got the initial stop on the ensuing possession with the Celtics up just four points.

And then there was the back-breaking offensive rebound, the Al Horford three off of it, and the energy sucked out of the building. That was about the end of the game. Embiid said, "Story of my life" after a rough, last-second loss to the Celtics earlier this season. I have to imagine the thought flashed through his head again on Friday.

• P.J. Tucker was pulled from this game just four minutes in, and you had to wonder at the time if he was going to get much of a chance to impact the series from that point forward. The Celtics have made it clear they're going to leave him open and roam off of him to pack the paint, and he wasn't willing to punish them for the first 2.5 games or so.

Good news for Philadelphia – somebody must have made this clear to Tucker on the bench because he started getting them up and mixing it up on both ends. Tucker had three threes in this one, which is the Sixers' equivalent of hitting the lottery.

The Bad

• After burning down the Nets in the first game of this series, James Harden has come crashing back to Earth over the last two. After looking like he was on the verge of a breakthrough against the Celtics, Tyrese Maxey looked like a deer in the headlights, unable to knock down open threes and unable to get to the rim for easy looks. When those two guys are going bad at the same time, it is very difficult for this team to manufacture wins against elite teams.

Their struggles often exist at opposite ends of the spectrum — when one of them is floating through a game and uninvolved, the other is gunning aggressively and bricking jumper after jumper. That was mostly true again on Friday night, and unfortunately for Philadelphia, they got the most extreme possible version of the passive Harden game. 

Harden started the game looking "normal" enough, but he struggled to get calls early in the game, couldn't get his shots to go down from any area of the floor, and then...well, I have to make the comparison, he basically morphed into the version of Ben Simmons we saw during the 2021 Hawks series. After Harden got through the first level of Boston's defense, he found himself with space to operate in the paint and the rim in front of him, and somehow forgot to take a glance at that orange hoop hanging 10 feet above him in the air.

As the half wore on, the home faithful began to tire of his act, yelling "SHOOT!" a time or two as if they were urging on a Flyers power play (or, again, Simmons during his lowest moments). It didn't seem to register with Harden, who continued deferring to others and conceding the advantages he had created off of the dribble. 

To make matters worse, Harden's vision and playmaking were horrendous even before the Celtics began overplaying him to pass, with Philadelphia's trusted hand in the backcourt unable to make a simple passing read for most of the game. It was a game filled with overthinking – he had Jalen McDaniels for an open three in the corner on one possession, wasted two seconds before dribbling and completing a jump pass, and then McDaniels was covered, unable to do anything with the opportunity.

It was criminal to get this level of Harden stinkbomb when you consider how much better Embiid looked after knocking off the rust. Even a C-level performance from Harden would have likely pushed the Sixers to a comfortable win, because Boston was punished for just about every mistake they made covering the big man. But nobody could take advantage of their opportunities with the Celtics selling out to stop the big man, and that left them chasing the game all night long. 

Maybe he placed a bet on the Celtics to win Game 3 when he made his trip to Las Vegas last week. Hard to explain this disaster class otherwise. 

• Back to our friend Maxey – the young guard certainly didn't fear missing shots against the Celtics, pulling up from three early in the shot clock whether they were in a halfcourt set or trying to outrun the Celtics in transition. He attacked the rim with speed, forcing the issue against Boston's bigger, longer defenders and living with the results.

The results, though, were bad. Maxey continues to be snakebitten against this Celtics team, and you have to wonder how much of it is a mental struggle at this point. They didn't exactly beat him up when he had the ball in his hands, and he got plenty of decent looks at the rim while operating off-ball. He just could not buy a basket, no matter where he was or what the quality of shot was.

As always, I can at least respect a guy willing to fall and die on his own sword, rather than bowing out meekly the way Harden did.

• Here's the simple calculus for the Sixers for the rest of this series: if a guy is willing to shoot open threes, he can stay on the floor. If a guy is not willing to shoot open threes, he cannot stay on the floor. 

Jalen McDaniels has not been willing to shoot threes, and has not been very helpful on defense. As long as those things remain true, he won't be able to see the floor. 

• Tobias Harris had a big boy possession in the first half where he attacked Jayson Tatum in the post and nearly sent him through the basket before depositing a short turnaround jumper. It was basically the only noteworthy possession for Harris, who struggled to get much of anything going on either end of the floor.

While foul trouble played a part in that — Harris was the victim of some rough early calls that Marcus Smart drew — that can only go so far to explain his woes. Given the state Harden was in, maybe the Sixers should have tried to run more designed looks for Harris, who has shown in these playoffs that he can get rolling if you give him a gentle push at the top of the hill. But there was very little of that, and so Harris ended up a passenger in the halfcourt while struggling to take his chances in transition.

While we're on that subject, Harris is so, so bad in transition for a guy with his multi-faceted skill set. Philadelphia rarely seems to get much out of a two-on-one that involves Harris on the break, with the Sixers more likely to run into each other than score at times. 

• Boston got seemingly every big 50/50 ball the entire night. The Sixers battled and battled to hang in this game despite being unable to throw it in the ocean for much of the game, but they failed to seize just about every potential swing play that was there for them.

I don't even think this was due to a difference in effort, honestly, because they were in range of most of these plays and leaped up, down, and to the floor in order to chase them. But the Celtics kept coming down with them, kept hitting the shot on the extra possession, and broke the spirit of the fanbase that was so ready to explode if the Sixers had taken the lead. Too bad.

The Ugly

• Embiid's MVP speech in front of the Philadelphia crowd somehow managed to exceed expectations, and they were impossibly high to start with. It was a perfect summation of who Embiid is as a person — he brought along his teammates, his family, and the man who helped him get off to his basketball start in America, breaking down in tears with his son in his arms during the middle of his speech.

There were a lot of misty eyes in the building and (I imagine) at home watching on TV, and after a long and winding road to get here, it was awesome to see Embiid get his moment. And then, about as awesome watching him play basketball, which is why everyone showed up in the first place.

• Joe Mazzulla's challenge early in the third quarter is one of the weirdest coaches challenges I can remember. Low leverage spot, just felt like a complete throwaway.

• At the risk of angering every single person who reads my articles, I honestly did not think the officials were that bad in this game. There were definitely some controversial moments, like the shot clock violation on De'Anthony Melton, and some questionable charges drawn by Marcus Smart, but most of the other stuff was fairly accurate. 

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