BOSTON — Philadelphia 76ers guard and one-time NBA MVP James Harden allegedly traveled to Las Vegas between playoff series, arrived to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals dressed like Cookie Monster and played far more seriously against the Boston Celtics than either decision foreshadowed.
In the absence of injured Sixers co-star and MVP favorite Joel Embiid, the 33-year-old Harden’s uber-efficient 45 points in a 119-115 victory at TD Garden on Monday may have been a turn-back-the-clock moment for the three-time scoring champion had there been many in our memory of his playoff career.
This was the signature game of an all-time great who has wilted in so many similar situations before.
“I’m so happy for him, because it just tells you what he can do on given nights,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s amazing. The guy’s a Hall of Famer, and all you hear is the other stuff about him. You really do.”
In Boston’s locker room prior to the series opener, six-time All-Star Blake Griffin — drafted two slots ahead of Harden at No. 1 overall in 2009 — and fellow Celtics reserve Luke Kornet held a philosophical discussion about the nature of a career, how easy it is for athletes to lose themselves in negativity when most fall short of their championship goals year after year, and how steep the road down from the mountaintop can feel.
Neither could have foretold that Harden, victim to more criticism than his superstar peers, would join Stephen Curry and LeBron James in reminding the league they can still reach the summit. No one predicted it. Harden is playing on a bad foot and could not beat the Brooklyn Nets off the dribble in the first round.
“I haven’t felt one of those zones in a minute,” said Harden, who added a team-high six assists. “It felt really good, just to be aggressive and shoot the basketball and do what I want. I’m capable of doing it.”
I was drafting a version of this story about how the Harden show was not enough for the Sixers as the Celtics shot 85% from the field in the opening quarter. He played all 12 minutes, attempted more shots than Philadelphia’s four other starters combined, scoring 16 of his team’s 31 points, and still the 76ers trailed by seven. Harden offered little resistance defensively, and allowing the spread-out Celtics to work freely in that space seemed to be a geometry problem Philadelphia could not solve without Embiid to protect the rim.
Harden saw waves of Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon and Celtics even bigger and more athletic than them, and for much of the first half, the best he could manufacture was a fadeaway midrange jumper or a step-back 3-pointer. He made a ton of them — 7 of 10 such shots for 17 of his 21 first-half points — but banking on the hardest shots in basketball to sustain the Sixers for four quarters felt too much to ask of someone who failed to make the All-Star team for the first time in more than a decade.
“I was taking the best available shot, whatever they gave me,” said Harden, once the poster child for an anti-midrange offense his Houston Rockets popularized. “I just rose up and took the shot, whether it was a 3, a floater or a midrange jumper — something I’ve been working on throughout the course of the year.”
In his prime, defenses used to take what Harden would give them. This was not that. He had to work for every opening, and he took advantage on 17-of-30 shots he could create, including 7 of his 14 3-point attempts. He took just four free throws, nowhere near the double-digit attempts he averaged from 2012-20.
Harden’s 45 points matched his career playoff high from Game 4 of the 2015 Western Conference finals. His Rockets were trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-0 in that series, indicative of a postseason résumé filled with highs in low-pressure situations and lows in the high-pressure ones. This also was not that. The Celtics needed this series-opening home game with Embiid temporarily sidelined, and Harden stole it.
“That’s what he does,” said Sixers forward Tobias Harris, who added 18 points on 16 shots. “He has a huge amount of confidence in his game and what he works on. He’s been doing it for so long. This was an amazing time to come out and dominate. He dominated the whole game and carried us to the victory.”
The Celtics demonstrated a lack of respect for Harden’s heroics. Al Horford dropped in pick-and-roll coverage, leaving Harden too much room to operate, and when the 3s started falling, the Sixers star used Boston’s newfound respect and his signature footwork to get a step on the defense. His five makes in the paint nearly matched his total from all of last round. He even joked, “That was a dunk,” when a reporter described his game-tying basket with eight minutes remaining as a finger roll. (It was definitely a finger roll.)
Harden never tired in his 40 minutes, perhaps the most shocking development of the night. He scored 15 of Philadelphia’s 32 points in the fourth quarter. He was so blistering hot, the Celtics’ defense on the night’s most vital possession was inexplicable. Trailing 115-114 and trying to shake Smart with 18 seconds left, Harden called for a screen from P.J. Tucker, and rather than doubling the ball — daring Harden to dump it to Tucker, who did not attempt a single shot all night — the Celtics left Horford on an island against an inferno.
“I came off the screen, and I was wondering if they were going to put two on the ball,” said Harden. “So, when I cross-screened and pulled the ball back out, they were just staying on me 1-on-1, so I was like, ‘All right, this is what I work on every day,’ so get the best available shot, no matter what it is, raise and shoot.”
Harden drilled the go-ahead triple with 8.4 seconds on the clock, and an errant Smart pass on the next possession capped Boston’s comedy of errors. The Celtics shot 59%, took six more free throws and still landed on the wrong end of the score, since they allowed 32 points from turnovers and second chances.
Who knows if the math can work in Philadelphia’s favor over a seven-game set if Embiid’s sprained right knee cannot get healthy and Harden is less effective on a day’s rest than he was on nine (even if at least one of them was spent in Sin City). A 1-0 series lead is the only factor that matters now, and no one has looked so confident in so ridiculous an outfit as Harden exiting the greatest playoff podium game of his storied career.