The Philadelphia 76ers, sans Joel Embiid, were heavy underdogs entering Monday’s Game 1 showdown against the Boston Celtics. The presumptive MVP has been the driving force behind the Sixers’ offense and defense all season. Meanwhile, Boston has star power and depth in equal measure.
Well, the Sixers jumped out to a surprising 1-0 series lead on Monday. Paul Reed played 37 minutes at center, P.J. Tucker put together another trademark cardio-night victory (zero points, five rebounds, +6), and Tyrese Maxey was splendid.
The real standout, however, was James Harden. Philly’s second star shined bright, tying his postseason career high with 45 points on 17-of-30 shooting (7-of-14 from deep). After struggling to finish around the rim and score consistently in the Sixers’ first-round series against Brooklyn, there were justifiable doubts about Harden’s ability to perform against Boston’s loaded defense. He put those concerns to bed.
Twitter had a field day with ESPN’s poorly-aged James Harden take
The morning before the game, it was suggest on ESPN that, perhaps, James Harden could lead the Sixers through adversity without Embiid. He is, after all, one of the greatest offensive engines of his generation. Not long ago, few players were more capable of leading an offense than Harden.
Well, let’s just say ESPN’s pundits weren’t sold on the idea of Harden leading his team to victory.
Some takes age like sour milk, over a period of several days or weeks. This one was more like an ice cube melting in the hot sun; in a matter of hours, the idea of Harden leading his team to victory went from laughable to factual. It happened; Harden “turned back the clock,” and the Sixers now have home court advantage with Embiid’s return possibly looming in the near future.
Twitter did its thing, and now we have plenty to smile about during the wait for Game 2.
Nick Friedell, the ESPN NBA reporter laughing in the video, had this response after the Sixers’ win.
He’s not entirely wrong to frame it this way, of course. The Sixers still have a long way to go, and Embiid’s health is still in question. Joe Mazzulla and the Celtics are bound to adjust their defensive game plan in Game 2. Will lightning strike twice, or is Harden’s throwback performance more of a one-off?
The Sixers are obviously hoping the former is true. If Harden can eviscerate Al Horford and the Celtics’ pick-and-roll coverage every night, then suddenly Philadelphia feels very capable of winning this series. Even if Embiid doesn’t return at 100 percent, his return — and the return of his offensive gravity and rim protection — would make Harden’s life even easier.
Until then, if the Sixers face another game or two without their MVP candidate, the burden will once again rest on Harden’s shoulders. Few players have a more complicated playoffs reputation than Harden. He has a lot to prove, and getting the Sixers past Boston would certainly bolster others’ opinion of him.