Without the aid of potential MVP Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers took the court in Boston for the first game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. To call this matchup a daunting task would be a massive understatement, but the Sixers would focus on controlling as they attempted to steal homecourt advantage.
If the Sixers were to have any chance in this game, it was clear that they would need their remaining stars, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, to step up; and step up they did.
Houston Harden returns
As if he had pictures of Father Time, James Harden brought back memories of his days with the Houston Rockets with his performance tonight. Forty-five points, including 15 in the fourth quarter, for Harden in by far his most impressive game with the Sixers.
Averaging 17.3 points and 8.8 assists while shooting 42.4% from three, Harden performed admirably in the first round, despite questions about his ability to drive to the rim and lead an offense as a scorer. Tonight, Harden responded strongly to those questions.
While Harden continued to struggle against contact and did not receive the same whistle that he had in his Houston years, he certainly looked improved over the first round. What was impressive as well was that, instead of pouting as some may have expected, he focused on retaliating with quality play on both ends — and only a little bit of pouting.
James Harden was the key to the Sixers’ victory tonight and will continue to be so until Joel Embiid returns and perhaps even beyond. In a contract year, Harden is certainly doing all that he can for the sake of his future, both from a financial and legacy standpoint.
Tyrese to the Max
In addition to James Harden’s standout performance, Tyrese Maxey seemingly overcame the demons that normally plague him against the Celtics. Averaging just ten points per game over four regular season matchups, Maxey found his rhythm, scoring 26 and finishing with a +12 on the night.
Against such talented defenders as Marcus Smart, Derreck White, and at times, Jayson Tatum, Maxey mustered up the strength to overcome the obstacles in front of him and produce not only offensive but on the defensive side of the ball as well.
Perhaps no play was more important than his critical steal and score in the closing minutes of the game, one of four on the night.
Maxey has been considered the wildcard of the series for Philadelphia — I suppose other than Embiid’s health — given his past struggles. While it wasn’t the most efficient night from the rising star, it was his unrelenting aggression that made the difference tonight.
The Sixers will next face off against the Celtics on Wednesday night at 8:00 PM EST. Joel Embiid’s current status is currently unknown, but after stealing away homecourt advantage, perhaps the Sixers will allow him to continue recuperating until the series comes home to Philadelphia Friday night.