Sixers vs. Celtics Game 4: Harden Does It Again
The Harden Game, Part II.
Adam Aaronson, whose legal name is Sixers Adam (@SixersAdam on Twitter), covers the Sixers for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. He believes cantaloupe is the best food in existence, and is brought to you by the Official Realtor of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
It was a situation all too familiar to the fans in South Philadelphia. Their Sixers, despite outclassing the Boston Celtics for much of the game, found themselves on the ropes, their season essentially on the line. Joel Embiid was struggling to score down low against Al Horford. All of the usual suspects were making big plays for the Celtics. The familiar feeling of impending dread set in.
But somehow, someway, the Sixers fended off the demons of their past. They beat the Celtics in overtime, 116-115, tying up the second round series at 2-2 and setting up a massive Game 5 in Boston on Tuesday night.
Game 3’s lead story was James Harden’s massive struggles, which tanked any chances the Sixers had of winning. Sunday’s lead story centered around the same subject Harden once again. This time, though, the details were much different.
After shooting 5-28 from the field between Games 2 and 3, Harden poured in 42 points to go with nine assists, eight rebounds and four steals Sunday, shooting a fantastic 16-23 from the field and knocking down six of his nine three-point tries.
Harden attributed his massive improvement to improved floor spacing and work done in Saturday’s film session. When asked if that spacing was the primary difference between the Sixers’ offense in Game 4 and Games 2 and 3, he nodded.
Sixers Head Coach Doc Rivers agreed that the improved spacing played a role in Harden’s transformation, but that Harden deserves credit individually for stepping up his game.
“I thought we really helped James with our spacing,” Rivers said, before showering his lead guard with praise. “For a day and a half, James had to get himself back. Nobody did that but James,” Rivers said.
“I sent him a gospel song before the game,” Rivers said. “The title of it is ‘Do You Know My Name?’ James was James tonight.”
(Harden, for the record, pulled out his phone postgame and incredulously pointed out to the media that, after putting the song on, he realized it was seven minutes long.)
The Batman to Harden’s Robin had a terrific first half, but struggled in the fourth quarter. Embiid struggled to get anything going against Horford, who blocked him three times in the final five minutes of regulation. Embiid regained his form in overtime -- after a little help from someone who Embiid has long wanted to be able to go to war with.
PJ Tucker, who revived the Sixers’ chances with a critical three-point play to tie the game off an offensive rebound, gave Embiid the ultimate pep talk before he sunk his free throw.
“Nobody can guard Jo one on one, there’s no way. I’m sorry, it’s not any disrespect to Al or anybody else, but I’ve guarded him for a lot of years, and when he’s aggressive and assertive, it’s impossible,” Tucker said when asked what sparked his pep talk. “I saw him two plays in a row not do that. And we can’t have that. We can’t have that. Not with the season on the line, we can’t have that.”
Rivers volunteered a comparison between this game and similar ones the Sixers played last season in round two against the Miami Heat.
“You know the biggest difference? There was a guy named PJ Tucker on Miami. There’s a guy named PJ Tucker on our team.”
After a Harden floater and missed three from Marcus Smart sent the game into overtime, Embiid picked up his aggression level. Embiid and Rivers both acknowledged that the team’s fatigue caused many of their problems, in part because Rivers shortened the rotation, not playing Jalen McDaniels and sticking with eight rotation players. The brief break gave Embiid a second wind, he said, which enabled him to score some key buckets down the stretch.
After a Jayson Tatum three gave the Celtics the lead in the final seconds, Rivers called timeout and drew up a play that was intended to give the Sixers what he called “exactly what we got.”
The Sixers set up what was supposed to be a traditional dribble hand-off between Harden and Embiid. But a pivotal detail changed the play drastically -- before the ball was thrown to Embiid, Rivers had Tobias Harris run a curl around the big-man. It forced Boston’s switch-heavy defense to concede a mismatch, with Horford trailing Harris and Tatum now serving as Embiid’s primary defender. With the mismatch generated, Embiid and Harden ditched the original plan.
Rather than coming towards Embiid for the ball, Harden retreated to the corner. Embiid leveraged his size and strength advantages over Tatum to get closer to the rim. Jaylen Brown rushed away from Harden, his primary assignment, to double-team Embiid. The MVP wisely and crisply fed Harden, who got off a great look from the corner. Cash.
One stop later, the Sixers had evened the series. They head to Boston for what will be the biggest game the team has played since their heartbreaking Game 7 loss in Toronto in 2019 against the Raptors.
Buckle up, everybody.