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May 07, 2023

Instant observations: James Harden saves Sixers in wild Game 4 vs. Celtics

A James Harden three in overtime pushed Philadelphia to a dramatic Game 4 win over the Boston Celtics on Sunday, tying the series at 2-2 with a 116-115 victory. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• It was tough to get a read on which version of both teams we were going to get for this one. Were the Celtics about to land the knockout blow after ruining Joel Embiid's MVP moment on Friday night? Or were the Sixers going to keep the season's theme of fighting with their backs against the wall going? 

They landed in the latter category decisively. From the opening tip onward, the Sixers came with the proper amount of force, which is to say they came with everything they had. And that showed up in unexpected areas, not just from their best players lighting it up on offense. 

After Philadelphia's Game 3 loss to the Celtics, Joel Embiid made the point that the Sixers had to figure out what else they could do if they weren't impacting the game as scorers. Tyrese Maxey, long viewed as one of Philadelphia's weakest defensive links, came out and immediately made two huge plays on defense, and hit the glass as hard as he ever has in the NBA. The smallest guy on the floor had six rebounds before the first quarter was over, going up and attacking the ball instead of waiting for Boston to hit first.

• There was a ton of concern (including from yours truly) regarding James Harden's ability to bounce back from a terrible Game 3 performance. An afternoon Game 4 after he looked slow and bewildered for much of the previous meeting sounded like a disaster in the making.

Harden made clear right away that he was going to give the Sixers more than he had on Friday night. His drives were more purposeful, with his intent clearly to score or get all the way to the rim instead of meandering 10-12 feet away from the basket. Harden got downhill with speed, and while the Celtics were able to meet him with contests at the rim a few times during his dominant first half, his trips there were still a massive net positive for Philadelphia, forcing Boston to collapse and recover to shooters who got open looks time and time again.

With Harden in his groove early, it allowed the Sixers to find that mythical middle ground between Houston Harden and playmaking Harden, with Harden absolutely destroying soft coverage in the pick-and-roll while making sure his MVP partner got all of the touches and shots that he needed. This was James Harden at his matchup-hunting best, destroying Boston's bigs or weaker defenders like Malcolm Brogdon when the Celtics dared him to make something happen.

The defining characteristic of Philadelphia's two wins in this series has been Harden's destruction of Horford specifically, and the best periods for Boston have been when they've been able to have Horford hang out on someone like P.J. Tucker, immune from shots flying over his head as he tries to dance with No. 1 in space. As in Game 1, Harden was just cruel to the aging Celtics big in this one, taking advantage of any possession where he could to either drive at or pull up in front of Horford.

Philadelphia looked dead in the water as things slowed down late in the game, with Embiid stuck in the mud trying to beat single coverage. After a season filled with bailouts led by the big guy, it was Harden who swooped in and played superhero late in the game — he picked apart the Celtics with drives to the basket and some midrange wizardry, basically forcing overtime all by himself. 

And then Harden took it one single step further — the Celtics loaded up the middle of the floor on the game's biggest possession, with Harden waiting in the corner as Embiid met pressure in the middle of the floor. The man famously averse to catch-and-shoot threes had to take one in order to keep Philadelphia's hopes alive, and he delivered the dagger, two days after he looked like he was checked out of the series.

Harden played as if his legacy was on the line, and no one can question the effort he gave Philadelphia in this one. Incredible, gutsy performance in so many ways. 

(And give him credit for this, too – Harden's defensive engagement level was significantly better in this game, with the veteran guard coming up with a big play in help defense as it looked like the Celtics might come all the way back midway through the fourth. When he buys in there, the Sixers don't transform into a juggernaut, but they certainly become a much tougher team to score against. And Harden added some tough rebounds throughout the game to really send this one into the stratosphere. )

• P.J. Tucker came up with some of the most improbable offensive rebounds and hustle plays I have seen in my time covering the league. His and-one layup in the final minutes of regulation was just pure grit, Tucker popping up at the right time in the right place when the game appeared to be tilting toward Boston. 

The Bad

• The end of the first half for the Sixers felt like the potential turning point in this game. Right as it seemed they were about to put the Celtics out of their misery and turn it into a laugher, they let Boston back into the game with a series of sloppy mistakes. 

First, they let the Celtics control a rebound after Jaylen Brown missed a pair of free-throws, and watched as he got those two points back with a midrange jumper. A crowd that had been on the verge of delirium began to quiet down, and there were groans moments later, when Tyrese Maxey pulled up for a deep three with 38 seconds on the shot clock, airballing the attempt. Rather than getting a two-for-one for Philly, Maxey essentially handed Boston their own two-for-one, which they used to get a Tatum jumper and an Al Horford three in the corner. 

In many ways, Philadelphia's inability to land the decisive blow was the story of the game. They looked good coming out of halftime, padded their lead throughout the third quarter, and then lost steam in the Harden-less lineup they had on the floor for the final few minutes of the period. They ended up right back where they'd started the half, and when Boston looked like the better team in the opening minutes of the fourth, the Sixers' home crowd grew tense, as if waiting for the Celtics to finally come storming through with the game-changing run.

If ever there was a time for the MVP of the league to step up and see his team through a tough final quarter, it was this one. But Joel Embiid had absolutely nothing to offer in the important moments of this game after playing some of his best basketball early in the game, crumbling against the Celtics in a familiar fashion.

He was an overwhelming physical presence to start this game — relentless on the glass, unforgiving when the Celtics used smaller defenders on him, and at his best as a scorer, blending the midrange touch with bully ball around the hoop. But you could see how much that had taken out of him as he tried to dislodge Horford late in the game, unable to move his old foe no matter what he tried  the Celtics didn't have to do anything fancy to throw Embiid off of his game in the final five minutes, leaving Al Horford on an island vs. Embiid and stonewalling him multiple times. 

We can get into the weeds and point out the inconsistencies of their role players, but this is a spot where your best players have to make things happen with the game on the line. Embiid said it himself after they lost Game 2 in his return – as long as he is on the floor, there are no excuses to lean on with regards to health and his knee. While we can understand him not being in apex form, he simply was not good enough when it counted.

He owes Harden more than a Rolex for this bailout. 

• The other big concern for Philadelphia at this point in the series has to be the play of Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey. They've gotten two big-time performances from James Harden, Embiid has answered the bell after working out the rust, and even P.J. Tucker has offered some timely shooting and gritty defense at times through four games. Philadelphia's other two starters have been lost at sea.

After Maxey came out with that noticeable burst of energy on defense and on the glass, you would have hoped he'd be able to turn that into some sort of momentum on offense. But he continues to squander open three-point opportunities and look hopeless attacking the paint, running into Boston's length at the basket over and over again. What's striking is that he has not really figured out a counter — he has seen that Robert Williams III will meet him at the summit if he just tries to hit the gas, and he hasn't changed his approach basically at all.

At least Maxey has shown the physical juice to look like he might make something happen. Harris has been a different brand of hopelessness, so much so that Doc Rivers saw fit to try to play Georges Niang over both of Harris and Tucker in the fourth quarter. And honestly, I'm not completely convinced it was the wrong move, as at least Niang drew some defenders toward him on the perimeter. 

• After a terrible three games to open the series, the Sixers dropped Jalen McDaniels from the rotation entirely, going to just eight guys in a must-win game at home.

That felt like the right call, for what my opinion is worth here. McDaniels has looked timid on offense and a bit too jumpy on defense, and shrinking the rotation worked just fine on Sunday. 

The Ugly

• De'Anthony Melton on a transition layup attempt is one of the great comedic artists of the 21st century. You never know what's going to happen. 

• Protecting your field goal percentage in end-of-quarter situations might be my biggest pet peeve in the current NBA, and watching Jayson Tatum do it in the third quarter of a playoff game almost made me want to close my laptop and leave the arena. If a max contract player is tucking the ball and waiting until the clock runs out to get the heave up in the playoffs, nobody is ever going to shoot those shots again. The next CBA might have to rule that we're excluding those shots from the bookeeping. Absurd! 

• Some extremely questionable officiating late in this game. Tatum got away with a huge arm extension on the big shot in overtime, and the Embiid/Smart collision at the rim was a huge swing call. 

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