Harden Sends Emphatic Message With Vintage Performance for Sixers in Game 1 Against Celtics

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) in the second half during game one of the 2023 NBA playoffs against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden was in the zone right from the opening tip on Monday night. With Joel Embiid still out due to a right knee sprain, all eyes moved to Harden. The performance he put together, tying his playoff career-high with 45 points, reminded everyone what he is still capable of. His vintage showing led to the Philadelphia 76ers stealing Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Boston Celtics.

There were a lot of doubts about whether Harden still had that kind of effort in the tank. It is safe to say he silenced all of them in Game 1. After the game, Harden went back to the same theme he has been consistently hitting on all season.

“I don’t need to make a statement,” Harden said, via Ky Carlin of Sixers Wire. “What happens internally with the 76ers organization, coaches, my teammates, what they expect me to do all throughout the course of the year, was to be a facilitator and get Joel the basketball, and score when necessary. Joel wasn’t here tonight, and we knew that going into the series, and now it’s like alright, open up the floor, James you go be aggressive. And tonight I was aggressive. It’s not that I’m not capable of doing it, it’s just that this is my role for the team. You want me to do this? Tonight, I can do that as well, and I don’t think a lot of players can do that.”

Everything Harden said is correct. He made the adjustment this season to more of a secondary, facilitating role while playing next to Embiid. The results were devastating. He led the league in assists, Embiid is the favorite for MVP and the Sixers finished the season third in the Eastern Conference. Game 1 proved he can still flip the switch and go into another gear as a scorer. His ability, and nonchalance about it, to change roles at the drop of a hat truly reflects what makes him such a great player.

The Sixers have not ever had a No. 2 option of Harden’s caliber to pair with Embiid. Having someone with those capabilities is one of the big reasons why this year’s iteration of the Sixers feels different. In prior years, the Sixers would have gotten blown out in the playoffs on nights with Embiid out of the lineup. Now that they have Harden and a more complete roster overall, they are equipped with enough pieces to survive those nights.

The Celtics were cooked defensively, and their strategy against the Sixers certainly did them no favors. Boston consistently elected to have their bigs play drop coverage against the Sixers’ pick-and-rolls. This was an odd decision, especially when considering Harden’s abilities as a shooter. Harden carved up the drop coverage with ease.

Harden and the Sixers put together a masterclass in dissecting drop coverage against the pick-and-roll. Harden found a ton of success relentlessly attacking Al Horford out of the pick-and-roll. A lot of his damage came from beyond the arc, but he also flashed some mid-range shooting ability. Playing drop coverage against Harden and basically conceding him open space is a poor idea as Horford found out first hand.

The Celtics did attempt to adjust and throw some other defenses at Harden. They tried sending occasional double teams on Harden, but his court vision and passing ability made them unsuccessful. Boston also late in the game attempted to start switching on the pick-and-roll. By that point, Harden was already in a groove and was making his shots regardless of the defense in front of him. His game-winning 3-pointer served as proof of that. He used a screen to get the matchup he wanted. Horford’s defense on this particular play was solid, but Harden was so hot he just drained a step-back triple right over Horford’s outstretched arm.

The game-winner capped off Harden’s best scoring game in a Sixers uniform. Harden spoke afterwards about what it felt like to catch fire as a scorer the way he did in Game 1.

“I haven’t felt one of those zones in a minute and it felt really good,” Harden said. “Just to be aggressive and shoot the basketball and do what I want. That felt really good and I’m capable of doing it. it felt good to make shots, to give ourselves a chance, to be on the road Game 1, and be aggressive. We won. That’s all that matters. I’m happy.”

Having over a week off since they swept the Brooklyn Nets in the first round allowed the Sixers to fine tune their game plan. While Harden was in his zone, the Sixers also made some small changes in strategy to help free up more space for their ball handles. One of those changes included setting screens further up the floor. In Game 1, there were multiple cases of the Sixers setting screens as far up around the logo.

“We felt like if we can get them going downhill instead of waiting until you get into the halfcourt and setting them at the free-throw line, we literally were setting our pick at halfcourt. The floor is wide,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought the preparation helped. I thought that he had just the perfect mindset tonight. He really did. I’m so happy for him, because it just tells you what he can do on given nights, and he can be your point guard on given nights, it just speaks, it’s amazing. The guy is a Hall of Famer, and all you hear is the other stuff about him.”

Despite his gigantic performance, Harden remained subdued with the goal of keeping things in perspective. He was seen on the floor in the moments after the final buzzer telling teammates it was just one game. He repeated that message to reporters later on in the night.

“We’re here to win. Even after this game, I told the guys don’t get too happy. We’re even-keeled,” Harden said. “We’re coming in here to get Game 2 as well, that’s the mindset we have as a unit. Whether Joel comes back or not, we’re ready to go. Obviously, he’s huge, he’s everything for this team, but whoever’s on the floor, let’s go win the game. That’s what we did tonight.”

Regardless of Embiid’s status for Game 2, if Harden remains locked in the Sixers stand to have a fair shot at coming away with another victory. Game 2 is on Wednesday at 8 p.m.