When it was confirmed that Joel Embiid was out for Game 1, the assumption from everyone — including the Celtics — was that Boston was going to walk to an easy Game 1 win.
Everyone except inside the 76ers locker room. Philly showed the kind of mental toughness and grit Boston did not and stole Game 1 on the road, 119-115. The 76ers are now up 1-0 in the series (which likely means we do not see Embiid until Game 3).
Here are three takeaways from Game 1.
1) James Harden can still score with the best of them, puts up 45
Give the man his due.
All season long (really, for a couple of years now), he’s heard how he’s not the same scorer. Not the same bucket-getter. He can be elite as a facilitator, but Doc Rivers can’t ask him to take over a game with his scoring like it was 2019 in Houston.
Rivers did — and Harden answered with 45 points.
JAMES HARDEN FROM DEEP 😱
HE HAS 45 PTS. SIXERS LEAD 117-115.
8 SECONDS LEFT ON TNT pic.twitter.com/qWu1dmMhkg
— NBA (@NBA) May 2, 2023
Harden was 5-of-8 on shots in the paint, 5-of-8 on shots from the midrange (where he has been better this year), and 7-of-14 from 3. He had six assists as well.
What may have been most impressive was the IQ with which Harden got his buckets — he understood what the Celtics were trying to do with him. In the first half the Celtics switched on him, so he hunted the matchups he wanted. In the second half the Celtics stuck more one-on-one, so Harden used strength and step-back to get to his shots.
Beyond just Harden, the 76ers showed they had some fight in them. More than the Celtics.
This is a different team. | @Nissan pic.twitter.com/uqr96nZErd
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) May 2, 2023
2) Boston’s defense was: 1) Ugly. 2) Shambolic 3) Onerous. 4) All of the above.
Don’t take my word for it, here is what Malcolm Brogdon said of the change in coverages on Harden during the game, via Darren Hartwell of NBC Sports Boston.
“You’ve got to pick your poison. With them, they wanted (Jayson) Tatum to score. They let him play 1-on-1 most of the night. For us, I thought we doubled Harden a little bit too much, and it cost us.
“It puts us in long closeouts. It puts us in scramble mode. They’ve got a lot of shooters on the floor. They surround him with shooters, because he’s a great passer….
“You’ve got to cut off the water somewhere… If James Harden is going to have his 45, then that’ll be that. But the role guys can’t have really good games as well.”
However, the issue with the Celtics is bigger than just the defense. The Celtics did not bring a focused effort in two of the last three games — Game 5 against the Hawks and Game 1 against the Sixers. They did this a little last season, but it’s been an issue all season long for these Celtics. At their peak, the Celtics are the best team in the NBA, but if they don’t play closer to that peak more regularly it doesn’t matter.
I doubt Boston to have another off night Wednesday in Game 2 — I bet we get closer to peak Celtics — but if they mentally check out for another game this series, they will lose. The 76ers are just too good for that kind of effort.
3) Boston’s offense took advantage of no Embiid but turnovers did them in
Boston had an offensive game plan that worked — they attacked the paint with Joel Embiid out. The Celtics shot 58.7% for the game and scored a ridiculously high 66 points in the paint. In the first half, the Celtics shot 72% and scored 40 in the paint.
Boston had an insanely good offensive rating of 127.8. Jayson Tatum scored 39 of 14-of-25 shooting to lead the way.
THEY CAN'T STOP JAYSON TATUM pic.twitter.com/B1zBeOrGrx
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) May 2, 2023
Jaylen Brown added 25. Brogdon had 20 off the bench.
Boston’s problem was the 16 turnovers, six by Marcus Smart and four by Brown. Brogdon had the backbreaker.
MAXEY OFF THE STEAL 😱
SIXERS LEAD BY 1 WITH 0:28 TO PLAY.
📺: TNT | Game 1 | PHI at BOS pic.twitter.com/HfsrXMjyYa
— NBA (@NBA) May 2, 2023
Turn the ball over too much. Don’t defend well, and don’t be fully committed to that process. It’s a combination ripe for disaster.
And for Boston, Game 1 was a disaster.
For Philadelphia, it couldn’t have gone much better.