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April 20, 2023

Despite James Harden's 'unacceptable' Flagrant 2 foul, Sixers dig deep to win in Brooklyn

Harden was thrown out at the end of the third quarter for an incident with Brooklyn's Royce O'Neale.

BROOKLYN — The Sixers somehow escaped with a 102-97 victory in a crazy Game 3 in Brooklyn, doing so despite losing James Harden to a Flagrant 2 ejection at the end of the third quarter. Harden pulled no punches in his postgame session with the media, labeling Tony Brothers' decision "unacceptable" multiple times.

"Unacceptable. Unacceptable Flagrant 2. First time I've been ejected, I'm not labeled as a dirty player, I didn't hit him in a private area," Harden said Thursday night. "Somebody's draped on you like that defensively, it's just a natural basketball reaction. I didn't hit him hard enough for him to fall down like that."

"For a flagrant two, it's unacceptable. It's a playoff game, we've seen around the league things that are much worse than that play was. Honestly, I don't even think it was a foul on me. But, that's unacceptable. That can't happen."

Harden told reporters he did not get an explanation for why he was thrown out of the game. In an interview with a pool reporter following the game, crew chief Tony Brothers explained that Harden's ejection was a product of where his contact took place.

"Based on the point of contact directly to the groin, it rose to the level of excessive and ejection," Brothers said. 

Replay reviews appeared to show Harden making contact with Royce O'Neale's midsection, but slightly above the groin area:

"I didn't even think it was a foul on me," Harden said Thursday. "Somebody draped on me, natural reaction is just to use your off arm and get him off a little bit. It wasn't like no wind-up, elbow, none of that. I didn't hit him in the private area, none of that. That's just, that can't happen."

Harden's ejection was one small part of a wild night at Barclay's Arena, featuring a second ejection for Brooklyn's Nic Claxton in the fourth quarter. There was another near-miss for Philadelphia, as Joel Embiid was nearly tossed himself in the opening minutes of the game after Claxton stood over him following a tangle under Philadelphia's basket. Embiid kicked at Claxton and triggered a replay reivew, ultimately picking up a flagrant one penalty on the play.

Embiid would feign ignorance regarding what happened in the first quarter, attempting to move past the incident quickly, perhaps with the idea in mind that the foul could be looked at by the league office in the coming days.

"I don't remember," Embiid said when asked about his dust-up with Claxton after the game. "We're up 3-0, we move on, it takes me a lot to process a game after that type of fight. So I got to go watch the tape, see what we can do better, what I can do better, and I'm just happy we got the win."

After an offense-first battle between the teams in Game 1, Philadelphia's first-round series has devolved into a defensive slugfest. MVP candidate Embiid scored just 14 points on 13 shots, with the Nets once again flooding him in the middle of the floor in an effort to make someone else beat them. 

Desperate on their home floor and down 2-0, the Nets hammered Embiid in the painted areas and closed the gap in some of the secondary battles, turning Philadelphia over 14 times. But the Sixers managed to win the battle on the offensive glass once again, thanks in large part to P.J. Tucker. 

Tucker was credited with three offensive rebounds and ended up impacting several more possessions by tipping out loose balls and drawing fouls diving to the floor. The veteran forward called the physical, scrappy battle with Brooklyn his favorite style of game, remarking that it's one they'll look back on fondly if they're able to achieve their goals this season. 

"I told Joel before we started the playoffs, these type of games are the ones you remember if you get to where you want to be," Tucker said following the game. "Those games where you shoot 40 percent, and 60 from free throw, and nobody can hit a three, and you win. Those are the ones, that’s when you know you’re growing as a team. You do whatever it takes that night to get that win. And these are the kind of games that build that foundation to be able to win. Because then when you’re rolling, it’s hard to beat you."

Down Harden for the fourth quarter, Tyrese Maxey played the hero for Philadelphia. The 22-year-old guard hit the game-winning basket with under a minute to play, scoring a team-high 25 points after being shut out of the offense for much of the second half. Maxey earned strong reviews from Doc Rivers and Harden for his poise in crunch time, shrugging off what had been a subpar offensive half for the team. 

"Because [Embiid] believes in me," Maxey told PhillyVoice when asked how he found the confidence to call his number over Embiid's on a pivotal crunch-time possession. "And I put the work in, I believe in myself. I hit a few, my confidence got rolling, and as soon as Joel got the switch and did me like this, told me to go, I went out there and went."

The win puts Philadelphia on the verge of their first sweep since 1991, and the potential for their first sweep in a seven-game series since the 1985 Sixers beat the Bucks 4-0 in the second round of the playoffs. As frustrated as he was with the ejection, Harden was in good spirits in the locker room following Philadelphia's win, well aware they could earn themselves a week off with a win on Saturday. 

As for the experience of watching his team close out a game with him in the locker room, however, Harden is hoping to avoid that moving forward. 

"Horrible," Harden said. "I'm having an okay game, you know what I mean? I'm aggressive a little bit, that's one of the worst feelings. I don't want that, that can't happen again unless it's called for. I'm happy we won the game man. Game 4 on Saturday, I'll see y'all there." 

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