James Harden deserved to take a bow on Monday night, even if he decided to wait until he put back on his enormous pants to do so. In a game in which the Philadelphia 76ers were undermanned with their MVP candidate dealing an injury more serious than what was first made public knowledge, Harden was the best player on the court.
The Boston Celtics are arguably the best team in the NBA — and they are certainly one of the deepest. With Embiid out and the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks eliminated, the red carpet had been laid for the Celtics to walk to the 2023 NBA Finals.
Still, they somehow ended up in a first-half 1985 Denver Nuggets-style shootout with the 76ers. The halftime score was 66-63. The Celtics shot 71.6 percent from the field, and the 76ers went 55.3 percent while converting on three more 3-point attempts. At halftime, the Celtics had attempted the only two free throws of the game to that point.
Boston held the lead at the end of the first half, but for the rest of the game, the scoring regressed back to the mean. Both the 76ers and Celtics were not able to shoot even 46 percent from the field in the second half.
James Harden actually showed up instead of disappearing
What allowed the 76ers to pull out this narrow Game 1 victory was veteran dominance from Harden in the second half. The 76ers had to fight for a lead that went back and forth, but it was his excellence that allowed them to be the team that dragged the advantage over the finish line.
This notorious NBA playoff underachiever was the only player in the game to shoot better than 50 percent from the field in the second half while attempting at least 10 shots. Harden not only went 8-of-16 from the field but also shot 44.4 percent from the 3-point line. Then at the end of the game, when the Celtics held the lead for nearly all of the final five minutes, Harden hit the most important shot of his NBA career.
Harden buried a 3-pointer in Al Horford’s face with eight seconds remaining. That shot gave the 76ers a two-point lead, and gave Harden 45 points for the game. A total that is tied for the most points he has scored in a playoff game, and his team needed every single point.
As hot as the 76ers began the game, in the first half they were clawing with their fingernails to keep pace with the Celtics. Jaylen Brown had missed only one shot, and Tatum was 11-15. This game had all of the makings of a loss in which the hurt would increase the closer that the 76ers kept the margin. It is highly unlikely that they could duplicate their Game 1 first-half effort on Wednesday.
Harden hadn’t scored that many points since 2015
Harden once scored 45 points in the playoffs against the Golden State Warriors in the only game that the Houston Rockets won in the 2015 Western Conference Finals. However, the Rockets had no chance at winning that series and were lucky to even be in it. Harden’s last superstar playoff effort was during the Rockets’ semifinal series against the San Antonio Spurs in 2017. With the series tied 2-2, he scored 43 points. However, he also played a large part in the Rockets losing that game by turning the ball over on consecutive possessions when they held the lead with less than two minutes remaining in the game.
Combine that with the Rockets losing to the Warriors in 2018 in Game 7 when no one could make a basket, again in 2019 after Kevin Durant got hurt, and Harden providing little resistance for the 76ers in the 2022 playoffs when Embiid was battling through injury, it’s reasonable for Nick Friedell to laugh at the thought of Harden leading his team to the Eastern Conference Finals.
If Embiid does not return for this series the Celtics are going to win. The 76ers do not have enough talent without him to hold off one of the deepest teams in the league. That being said, what Harden’s spectacular play did was give the 76ers several more days of life to wait and see if Embiid can return once the series shifts back to Philadelphia.
When Harden is one day inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, those who watched him will not spend much time reminiscing on his playoff performances. As we all laugh about the fouls he drew, complain about how much he slowed down the game, and marvel at his one-on-one dominance on the perimeter, we will also remember Game 1 in Boston. The night in 2023 he needed to perform like an NBA legend to give his team a chance at victory in the series, and he absolutely rose to the occasion.