Instant Observations: James Harden’s Vintage 45-Point Performance Pushes Sixers to Game 1 Win Over Celtics

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) reacts after a basket 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 reached back into the time capsule and pulled out a vintage performance right when the Philadelphia 76ers needed it. He tied his playoff career-high, scoring 45 points on 17-of-30 shooting (7-of-14 from 3-point range). The Sixers, playing without star center Joel Embiid, managed to steal a game on the road, beating the Boston Celtics 119-115 in Game 1 on Monday night.

Tyrese Maxey finished with 26 points on 10-of-24 shooting from the field. Tobias Harris added in 18 points, five rebounds and three assists. The Sixers shot 50.6% from the field and 44.7% from beyond the arc.

A lot of the attention heading into the game was on the big fella. Embiid missed his second consecutive game with a right knee sprain. However, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported there is “optimism” about a potential return for Game 2. Winning Game 1 undoubtedly takes some of the pressure off of Embiid having to return for Game 2.

Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 39 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Jaylen Brown finished with 23 points, six rebounds and four assists. Malcolm Brogdon added in 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting off the bench.

The Sixers hold a 1-0 series lead over the Celtics. Game 2 is on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Here are some instant observations from the win:

– With Embiid out of the lineup, everyone else on the floor would have to step up their production. Harden answered the call. There were questions about whether he still had the ability to carry an offense. Those were all answered emphatically in Game 1. He turned back the clock, putting together a vintage Harden performance.

Harden got off to a flaming hot start, single-handedly powering the Sixers’ offense in the early going. He scored 12 of the team’s first 16 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting from the field. Boston played a lot of drop coverage against the Sixers’ pick-and-rolls. Harden made them pay whether it was through knocking down some mid-range jumpers or pulling up for 3-pointers after coming around the screen. Offensively, the Houston Harden showed up and it could not have come at a better time.

A lot of Harden’s damage came while utilizing the pick-and-roll. He tore up Boston’s defense, specifically big man Al Horford. The Sixers found a matchup they could exploit and consistently attacked it. Horford at one point in his career was a good defender, but he no longer has the same mobility. The Sixers took advantage, punishing him over and over again in pick-and-rolls.

The Celtics’ refusal to make adjustments away from playing drop coverage against Harden was dumbfounding. Harden consistently used the pick-and-roll to get open looks from deep. He had an answer for every time Boston tried to go on a run in the second half, effectively keeping the Sixers in the game. The Celtics finally stopped having Horford drop against the pick-and-roll. With the game on the line, Horford switched onto Harden, who casually drained the game-winning 3-pointer.

Harden’s big performance was crucial to helping the Sixers steal Game 1. Prior iterations of the Sixers would not have been able to win a playoff game in a tough road environment while being without their best player. This game showcased the importance of having another player with Harden’s abilities.

– If anyone ever doubted what Embiid does defensively, this game should disabuse them of that notion. The Sixers sorely missed Embiid’s elite rim protection. They were eaten alive as Boston carved up their interior defense. The Celtics scored 38 points in the first quarter while shooting a ridiculous 17-of-20 from the field. Twenty-six of their points came from inside the paint. The Sixers’ inside defense was so porous it practically resembled a layup line.

Transition defense, a familiar weakness for the Sixers, also reared it’s ugly head. Boston successfully pushed the pace and used good ball movement to shred whatever semblance of transition defense the Sixers had. Right down to the individual, the Sixers could not have played any worse defensively. Harden’s off-ball defense was lacking. He lost track of his man multiple times, resulting in more easy layups. Paul Reed was often caught out of position while attempting to be the team’s primary inside defender.

Head coach Doc Rivers made a key adjustment coming into the second quarter. The Sixers started mixing in some zone defense. The zone gave Boston some issues, resulting in a plethora of turnovers. Tatum took advantage of some holes in the zone, connecting on a few 3-pointers, but overall the zone defense did a good job mucking up Boston’s offense. Reed also made some adjustments, recovering to have a much better second half in all facets. (His four free throws in the final minutes were also huge.)

Also, the Sixers were able to lock down defensively when it counted. Down by one with 57.1 seconds remaining, they put together a fantastic defensive stand that nearly resulted in a shot-clock violation. Instead, Maxey stole a pass and galloped down for a layup on the other end of the floor.

De’Anthony Melton, right alongside Harden, played a gigantic role in keeping the Sixers afloat in the first half. He used his length to bother some of Boston’s perimeter threats defensively, but his biggest impact came on the other end of the court. His outside shooting was critical, and it came in a variety of ways. He spaced the floor and benefited a lot from playing next to Harden, who managed to crash the Boston defense before finding Melton for an open jumper. The Sixers would have been lost in the first half without Melton’s production. He finished with 17 points, all coming in the first half, on 5-of-6 shooting from 3-point range.

– It was not always pretty, but in the end Maxey made some important contributions in Game 1. He was off the mark from 3-point range, but he used his speed to get downhill. Some of his crafty finishes around the basket were impressive to watch.

Maxey scored 11 of his points in the third quarter to help power the Sixers’ offense through some stagnant moments. However, he went ice cold in the fourth quarter, missing multiple open jumpers that he normally makes with ease. He also was in foul trouble for much of the final quarter, resulting in some passive play. In the end, his ability to successfully utilize his speed against Boston’s bigger perimeter defenders should be the biggest thing to take away from his performance. For someone who has struggled against Boston in his career, this game could be considered a breakthrough for the 22-year-old.