James Harden, guard for the Philadelphia 76ers and a former NBA MVP, reportedly went to Las Vegas in between series, showed up to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs dressed as Cookie Monster, and played far more seriously than either decision suggested.
Harden scored 45 points on Monday, leading the Rockets to a 119-115 victory over the Sixers at TD Garden. Embiid, a key player and MVP frontrunner for the Sixers, was injured, so Harden’s performance may be seen as a throwback to his earlier playoff days.
An all-time great, who has previously wilted in similar situations, had his best game ever.
‘I’m thrilled for him because it just tells you what he can accomplish on given occasions,’ Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “That’s incredible. All you hear about is the other things, and he’s a Hall of Famer. Indeed, you do.
Six-time All-Star Blake Griffin, who has drafted two spots ahead of Harden at No. 1 overall in 2009, and Celtics reserve Luke Kornet had a deep conversation in the locker room before Game 1 of the series about the meaning of success and failure in sports, and how easy it is for athletes to lose sight of the big picture when they repeatedly fall short of their championship goals.
Neither of them could have predicted that Harden, who has taken more heat than any of the other superstars in the league, would join Stephen Curry and LeBron James in showing that the rest of the league isn’t out of reach. It was unexpected. Harden struggled with a sore foot and could not dribble the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round.
James Harden Leads 76ERS in Scoring but Unable to Secure Win Without Defensive Support
“I haven’t felt one of those zones in a minute,” Harden, who also had six assists, said. “It felt great just to go out there and do what I wanted to do, which was to take a lot of shots and be aggressive. Believe in me; I can pull it off.
While the Celtics shot 85% from the field in the first quarter, I drafted a version of this story arguing that the Sixers needed more than the James Harden shows to win. While he played all 12 minutes and scored 16 of Philadelphia’s 31 points, they still trailed by seven.
He attempted more shots than any of the other 76ers starters. Without Embiid to cover the rim, Philadelphia had little chance of stopping the Celtics’ spread offense. Harden provided no defensive opposition.
For most of the first half, Harden could only muster a fadeaway midrange shot or a step-back 3-pointer against waves of Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon, and Celtics even larger and more athletic than them.
Seven of his ten attempts from 3-point range resulted in 17 of his 21 first-half points, but the Sixers couldn’t afford to rely on the hardest shots in basketball from a player who, for the first time in more than a decade, did not make the All-Star team.
James Harden’s One-Man Show Was Not Enough for 76ERS in the Loss to Celtics
“I was taking the best available shot, whatever they gave me,” said James Harden, who was once the face of an anti-midrange offense that his Houston Rockets popularized. Simply like I’ve been working on all year, “I just got up and took the shot,” whether it was a 3-pointer, a floater, or a midrange jumper.
When James Harden was in his peak, opposing defenders would take whatever he sent up, but not at all like that. He had to earn every open shot, but he made good on 17 of 30 opportunities, including 7 of 14 from beyond the arc. Only four free throws were attempted, well below his average of over ten per game from 2012-2020.
Previously, James Harden’s playoff high was set in Game 4 of the 2015 Western Conference Finals with 45 points. His playoff resume, with highs in easy situations and lows in tough ones, peaked when his Rockets were down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in that series.
Even this wasn’t that. With Embiid out for the time being, the Celtics desperately needed to win the series opener at home, but Harden grabbed it from them.
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