PHILADELPHIA — The 76ers were in danger of losing grip for the season when James Harden squared for a 3-pointer at the baseline late in overtime on Sunday. And look.
It was a chance to recover. Harden was enigmatic throughout his 76ers Eastern Conference Semifinals his first three games of his series against the Boston Celtics. But he put in a spectacular performance in Game 4 on Sunday, with his 19 seconds left in extra time, and he finally got his first shot.
Harden’s 3-pointer lifted the 76ers to a 116-115 win and leveled the best-of-seven series at 2-2. 8 rebounds and 4 steals.
The 76ers have been a staple of the NBA playoffs over the last six seasons and have appeared in the conference semifinals five times. But those second-round series are where the road tends to end for them: The last time they made it to the conference finals was in 2001, when Allen Iverson overtook the Milwaukee Bucks to lead them to the NBA Finals. (The 76ers lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in his fifth game.)
Philadelphia’s collective patience seems to be waning. When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver presented 76ers center Joel Embiid with his first Most Valuable Player award ahead of Game 3, it was a shattered franchise team-building process known as Without going into too much of the nasty details, the team played terrible basketball for several seasons and the many top drafts they used to select Embiid out of the University of Kansas. Collected picks.
Of course, the challenge for the 76ers was that the process wasn’t about earning individual honors, but that’s great. Now, players like Embiid and Harden, as well as coach Doc Rivers and the team’s president of basketball operations, Darryl Morey, are tasked with competing for the championship. Embiid is 29 years old. The 76ers traded Harden last season. Before Game 4, Rivers was asked about his team’s urgency.
“Do you have to answer that question?” he said with a laugh. “You worked on that question for 48 hours and that’s what you came up with? No matter how high, I’m going to assume it’s high.”
Delivered by Harden. Early in the first quarter, he made a beeline to the basket, scored with a runner, and he playfully knocked the ball off his head after it went through the hoop. It was a sign of more pyrotechnics to come.
None were easy. The 76ers gave up a 16-point lead in the third quarter. Embiid struggled from the field, shooting 11-of-26, though he finished with 34 points and he had 13 rebounds. Jayson Tatum scored his 22 of 24 points after halftime and nearly led the Celtics to a dominating comeback. Instead, Harden shouldered the burden of his 76ers.
During the regular season, Harden acted as a facilitator, averaging a league-best 10.7 assists. He was neither a scorer nor a three-point shooter in his previous basketball life with the Houston Rockets. Instead, he formed a strong partnership with the team’s unifying force, Embiid. Everyone revolved around Embiid, Harden included, and for good reason.
Game 1 of the Celtics’ 76ers series unbalanced in a strange and unexpected way. With Embiid sidelined with a right knee sprain, Harden felt compelled to step into his time machine and return to the gluttonous, ball-dominated Rockets era. He torched the Celtics, scoring 45 points while shooting 7-of-14 from 3-point range, leading the 76ers to a narrow victory.
Embiid was back in the lineup for Games 2 and 3, but suddenly Harden seemed too passive and reserved, too conscious of his teammate’s presence. It didn’t help much that Jaylen Brown stuck with Harden for so long. With these two losses, Harden shot 5 from the field, which made him 28 total. Game 3 on Friday was particularly terrifying. Harden regularly passed open shots. When he fired his 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter, he barely grazes the front of the rim. Many fans expressed their dissatisfaction.
“I think you can hesitate with anyone if you’re not hitting shots,” Rivers said.
Defending his shot selection, Harden told reporters: I know when to score I know when to pass, so I’m pretty sure it was the right play most of the time. “
On Saturday, the 76ers had an extended shoot at their practice facility. Rivers had a Game 3 clip where he felt the 76ers needed to play more pace, where the Celtics passed them on rebounds and loose balls, where players showed poor body and his language. has been identified. Having made it to the NBA Finals last season and renewed their title ambitions, the Celtics carried themselves in a different way.
“And I know there are coaches who say this, but it grows with each round,” Rivers said. We’ve already gone through the frustration of making mistakes and being unfazed. We’re not there, and that’s where we’re going.”
The 76ers made a lot of mistakes on Sunday. Their offense stalled in the fourth quarter. They stopped moving and settled for a tough shot. But Harden has playoff experience and he used it all.
Later in regulation, his runner against the Celtics’ Al Horford tied the game at 107-107. And in overtime, Harden came up with a key steal while defending his smart Marcus. He seemed to have a calming effect on his teammates.
He also found himself in possession of the ball when it mattered most. he knew what to do with it.