In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics, Philadelphia was without its MVP center Joel Embiid. But that didn’t stop James Harden from delivering one of the most incredible single-game performances in his playoff career, scoring 45 points and leading the 76ers to a thrilling come-from-behind victory.
Despite Boston’s hot start in the first quarter, going 17-for-20 from the field, the 76ers, with Harden leading the charge, kept the game within striking distance. Philadelphia put an emphasis on outshooting Boston from beyond the arc, with more than half as many 3-point attempts by Harden compared to the entire Celtics team and Harden making nearly as many 3-point shots as Boston.
“I thought that he had just the perfect mindset tonight,” said 76ers coach Doc Rivers. “The guy is a Hall of Famer, and all you hear is the other stuff about him. And he was fantastic.”
The game was tied at 115-115 with seconds remaining in the game when the 76ers gained possession. Malcolm Brogdon threw a pass straight to Tyrese Maxey with 0.1 seconds left on the shot clock, allowing Maxey to lay the ball in for a one-point lead.
On the ensuing offensive possession, Boston’s Jayson Tatum was fouled, and Rivers subbed in Georges Niang for Paul Reed before Tatum hit his second free throw, opting not to use his final timeout and presenting Harden with a chance to hunt out his preferred matchup for a potential game-winning shot.
Vintage James Harden
“I came off the screen, and I was wondering if they were going to put two on the ball,” Harden said. “And so when I cross-screened and pulled the ball back out, it was just like, ‘Stay home, it’s a one-on-one.’ I’m just looking up, and I’m just [saying], ‘All right, this is what I work on every day.'”
Once Harden realized the Celtics weren’t going to double-team him, he rose up and buried a dagger into Boston and its sellout crowd of 19,156 with a step-back jumper over center Al Horford, giving the 76ers a monumental victory.
With the win, the 76ers seized back the crucial home-court advantage despite Embiid’s absence. Harden’s aggressive play proved he is not just capable of facilitating for his teammates but also of carrying his team to victory.
“I’m capable of doing it, so it felt good. It felt good to make those shots, to give ourselves a chance,” said an elated Harden.
It’s still too early to predict how the series will ultimately end, but Game 1 proved that the 76ers have what it takes to win even without Embiid. And with a once-in-a-lifetime performance from Harden, they have a player capable of carrying the team on his back when it matters most.
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