No Joel Embiid, no problem.
The Sixers steal game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals 119-115 over the heavily favorited Boston Celtics. With Joel Embiid missing this, and potentially the next game, they have put themselves in a good position at the start of this series.
James Harden’s Legendary Performance
In past playoffs when Embiid has missed games his teammates have shrunk instead of stepping up in the moment. James Harden did the exact opposite of that tonight. Harden rose to the moment as he finished with 45 points, 6 assists, and the game-winning three-point shot. Harden had it going early tonight as he had 16 points in the first quarter and made his first 5 shot attempts. In the Sixers series against the Nets, Harden shot well from 3 but struggled inside the paint. With no real shot-blocking threat Harden was thriving in the paint, even showing off some post moves.
One of the biggest reasons for Hardens’ success tonight was his ability to attack the switch. The Celtics were switching on screens oftentimes leaving Al Horford on Harden one on one. Harden was having his way with the Celtics’ big man, including splashing the game-winning three in his face. While the Celtics have long switchable defenders, the Sixers were able to find the right matchups and exploit them. With Embiid not playing the Sixers coaching staff was able to do a good job of creating space and driving lanes for the guards if they wanted it. Harden had everything working tonight, and he carried the Sixers to this win.
A common talking point for people who think Joel Embiid is the MVP of the league is because of his prowess on the defensive end of the court. While it may not always show up in blocked shots, Embiid just being in the lane can deter drivers and force missed layups. Tonight was a prime example of just how important Embiids’ defense is to the success of the Sixers. The Celtics finished the game with 66 points in the paint, including 40 in the first half. It was obvious from the start that the Celtics do not respect Paul Reed as a rim defender, and they exploited him tonight. Hopefully, Embiid will be back in game 2, but if not that is something the Sixers coaching staff needs to find a way to slow down. The Sixers’ guards are poor defenders, and that can sometimes get cleaned up by Embiid. But with Embiid out the Celtics are going to keep attacking the rim until the Sixers figure something else out. I am not suggesting playing either Harrell or Dedmon, but maybe sending some more weak-side help.
The Sixers did make a massive adjustment to their defense tonight and that was the decision to switch to matchup zone. While having the look of the zone, and some man-to-man principles, used at the right time the matchup zone defense can be extremely effective. The Sixers pulled it out a few times tonight and the Celtics seemed to be a little flustered by it. It seemed that anytime the Celtics would go on a run the Sixers would pull it out, and slow the game down a bit. While the Celtics will certainly work on some offense to combat it, it is a good junk defense the Sixers can keep in their back pocket as the series goes on.
“Were Coming In Here to Get Game 2”
While splitting in Boston would be deemed a success, the Sixers have their eyes on more. In his post-game press conference, Harden told reporters “we’re coming in here to get game 2”. The Sixers have a massive opportunity in front of them come Wednesday night. The big question will be if Joel Embiid will play or not. There were multiple reports before the game that the Sixers were optimistic Embiid would be ready for game 2. If that is the case, the Sixers have an incredible opportunity to take a commanding 2-0 series lead before heading back to Philadelphia.
If Embiid does not play, the team should have confidence that they can beat the Celtics without Embiid again. While it would be unlikely Harden scores 45 points again, it’s also unlikely Tyrese Maxey will shoot as poorly from the floor as he did tonight. While he finished the game with 26 points, he only shot 41% from the field, and 22% from three. Maxey was able to get a ton of open looks tonight, but they just did not fall. It’s hard to imagine that happening two games in a row.
I have been saying all year that this team seems different, and while there is still a long way to go, they just might be.