James Harden leads the Celtics’ 76ers by 45 points, trailing 3

Tim BontempsESPN6 minutes to read

No Embiid, no problem: Harden scores 45 as the 76ers take Game 1

James Harden’s 45 points helped lead the 76ers to a blowout Game 1 119-115 victory over the Celtics.

BOSTON — With one second after another ticking down the clock, Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden kept an eye out for the basket and defenseman, Boston Celtics center Al Horford, with the Sixers trailing by one in the final seconds of Game 1 East. Conference semifinals Monday night.

And just as he had countless times before in his Hall of Fame career, Harden saw the moment when he could create the class necessary to get off his patented tiered sweatshirt — and he took it.

When the ball fell softly across the net for Harden’s last time of the night—tying a career playoff high of 45 points in the process—teammate Joel Embiid celebrated wildly on the sidelines, and Harden and the 76ers stole their court. With a thrilling 119-115 victory without him.

“I haven’t felt one of those areas in a minute,” Harden said with a smile afterward. “You know what I mean? Just be aggressive and shoot the basketball and do what I want.

“It felt really good… I’m able to do it, so it felt good. It felt good to take those shots, to give ourselves a chance.”

Few believed Philadelphia would stand much of a chance once Embiid, who sprained his right knee on April 20, was officially ruled out nearly 90 minutes into Game 1.

But few would have believed that Harden would produce perhaps the best performance of his playoff career. He came out and hit his opening five shots, setting the tone for Philadelphia on a night when the game threatened to walk away from the 76ers early thanks to Boston going 17-for-20 from the field in the first quarter alone.

That the match was still so close was only because of Harden.

“I thought he had the perfect mentality tonight,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “He really did. I’m so happy for him because he just tells you what he can do on certain nights.”

“The guy is a Hall of Famer, and all you hear is the other stuff about him. And he was cool.”

With Embiid sidelined, Philadelphia focused on doing something the Celtics often do: trying to win the math game by outboxing Boston from deep. Harden—who finished 17-for-30 from the field, including 7-for-14 from 3-point range—kicked more than half as many 3-point attempts as the entire Celtics (26) and made nearly the most (Boston finished with 10) .

And none was bigger than the one he hit over Horford, which came after a wild sequence that saw Malcolm Brogdon throw a straight pass to Therese Maxe with 0.1 seconds on the shot clock, allowing Maxe to sprint before the field and lay up. The ball began giving Philadelphia a one-point lead.

When Jason Tatum was fouled on the ensuing offensive possession, Rivers looped in George Nyang in place of Paul Reed before Tatum hit his second free throw, opting not to use his final timeout and instead giving Harden a chance to look for his favorite game.

Once Harden realized the Celtics weren’t going to double-team him, he did just that.

“I walked off the screen wondering if they were going to put two on the ball,” Harden said. And so when I crossed the screen and pulled the ball out, it was just like, ‘Stay home, it’s a one-on-one game. … Then I just look up and I just[say]’Well, this is what I work on every day.'”

“Get the best shot available no matter what it is. And you know…raise it and shoot it.”

Afterwards, Celtics coach Joe Mazzola was asked if he thought Boston should have tried to double-team Harden on that final possession, rather than leave him isolated against Horford, given the pace he got during the game.

“We doubled down in the first half, and they had a six-point double-double on Harden,” Mazzola said. “Hindsight is always 20-20. If we didn’t double it, that would have been a great defense. If we double it, and they hit a shot, it would be, ‘Why did we double it?’ “

But the Celtics didn’t double Harden, so he got up and buried a dagger in Boston and amassed a sellout of 19,156, giving the 76ers a massive victory.

Not only did the 76ers steal the homecoming advantage in the series, but they did so without Embiid — who could become the NBA’s MVP Tuesday night, when he or Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic or Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. The winner will be chosen.

Now, as Embiid recovers from a sprained LCL, the 76ers have already accomplished what they set out to do when they arrived in Boston.

“I think we’re proud to play without the big guy,” said 76ers forward PJ Tucker. “As good as he is, I think he gives other people opportunities to step up and play. James can do something, Tyrese is obviously really good without Joe, and everyone… everyone took a little step with him… It’s such an honor for us.”

It was clearly a source of pride for Harden, who said after Philadelphia’s Game 4 victory over the Brooklyn Nets to finish a first-round sweep that his focus this season has been on sacrifice for the betterment of the team. But on this night, with Embiid sidelined, it wasn’t about sacrifice — it was about being aggressive and trying to carry Philadelphia to a win.

“I don’t need to make a statement,” said Hardin. “My coaches, my teammates, what they’ve been expecting me to do all year is be a facilitator and get Joel the basketball and score when necessary. Joel wasn’t here tonight, you know what I mean? I knew that going into this series.

Now it’s like, ‘Okay, open the floor. James, be aggressive. And tonight, I was aggressive. So, it’s not that I can’t do it, it’s just… that’s my role for this team. Now, if you want me to do (what I did) tonight, then I can do that too.

“I don’t think a lot of players can do that. So yeah, I appreciate that.”

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