June 7, 2023

Overview and Observations 4 Games Into the Sixers-Celtics Series

Sixers guard James Harden, left, here driving against Boston guard Malcolm Brogdon Monday night during Game 1, can expect some increased defensive attention by the Celtics in Game 2 Wednesday night. (Charles Krupaa/AP Photo)

Sixers guard James Harden, left, here driving against Boston guard Malcolm Brogdon Monday night during Game 1, can expect some increased defensive attention by the Celtics in Game 2 Wednesday night. (Charles Krupaa/AP Photo)

After four games into the Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics, we have an even series, knotted up at two games a piece. However, saying this series is “even” does not do this series justice. It has been anything but “even”. This series has been a rollercoaster ride, a back and forth with both teams throwing haymakers and individual players taking control during crucial moments. It might just be a miracle this series is 2-2, as the two games the Sixers have won could have easily been losses.

The Sixers were double-digit underdogs in Game 1 and were given no chance to win with the league MVP sidelined. Yet, James Harden had other plans, making all the right plays, and hitting all of his shots, including the game-winning three with mere seconds left in the game. A true shocker of an upset to start the series.

However, Game 2 was a blowout, with the Celtics dominating every facet of play. Most notable was the return of Joel Embiid after missing two games, he shook off some rust, and had a commendable game. Harden and Maxey were no-shows, and the Sixers were flummoxed by Boston’s defense. Boston truly asserted their dominance in Game 2, tying the series at one.

Game 3 was close, and while the Sixers kept themselves in the game, every step they took, they took two steps back. Boston spoiled the emotional night of Joel Embiid’s MVP ceremony. James Harden and Tyrese Maxey had unbelievably horrible games, as they made poor decisions after another while. Harden and Maxey couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. Joel Embiid looked more like his MVP self, but his co-stars’ poor shooting halted any chance of the Sixers winning a game they had every chance to win. Boston took a 2-1 series lead, and the Sixers were reeling.

In Game 4, the Sixers had the Celtics’ number through the first three quarters. Embiid and Harden thrived, while Jaylen Brown had to make up for Jayson Tatum’s poor first-half performance, in which Tatum shot 1-9 from the field. At one point, the Sixers had a 16-point lead, but Jayson Tatum eventually began scoring the ball again. Poor finishes to the second and third quarters caught up to the Sixers, as they failed to put the game out of reach. A sixteen-point lead eventually turned into a five-point deficit for the Sixers with two minutes remaining in the game. With Philadelphia’s season teetering in the balance, PJ Tucker got an and-one putback layup, to draw closer, and then James Harden hit a difficult game-tying floater with fifteen seconds left in regulation. Marcus Smart then missed a wide-open three at the buzzer to send the game to OT. The last few plays of overtime featured a Joel Embiid and-one that was ruled a charge, and a Jayson Tatum step-back three that should’ve been an offensive foul as Tatum pushed off on Maxey. Down two with several seconds left, Joel Embiid passed James Harden the ball in the corner, and Harden hit the three that won the Sixers the game. Marcus Smart ran out of time on a three he made this time, and the Sixers won the game. James Harden once again bailed out the Sixers, and Joel Embiid is getting better and better each game he plays in this series. 

Here are a few observations to pull from the series so far:

James Harden is the X-Factor

This series has been decided mainly on one thing: the play of James Harden. Simply put, in the games Harden has played well, the Sixers won, while in the games he is off, the Sixers have lost. If the Sixers got the good version of Harden, they likely win game three, and the Sixers have a convincing 3-1 series lead. If Harden plays like he did in Games 1 & 4, the Sixers have a very good chance to win this series. However, it has been all Jekyll and Hyde for Harden so far. You 

Maxey, where are you?

Even before this second-round series, Tyrese Maxey has historically been snake bitten when it came to his performance against Boston in his career. However, there were hopes he could continue his stellar play from the Brooklyn series. In reality, Maxey has yet to have one of his usual scoring bursts or a consistent shooting night. Sure, he is knocking down a considerable amount of his wide-open three-point attempts, but the tough shots he typically hits aren’t falling. His blazing fast drives to the basket are bearing no fruit as he’s being stuffed by whoever Boston has guarding the paint, whether it’s Robert Williams or Al Horford. Maxey’s aggressiveness is admirable, but he may need to tone it down and improve his shot selection.

Boston Identity Crisis

There have been points in this series where Jayson Tatum cooked, and Jaylen Brown cooked, and at many points, one player has looked better than the other. The question is, who does Boston want to run the offense through? Jaylen Brown has been non-existent in the second halves of games one and four, barely even taking a shot down the stretch. Jayson Tatum has been incredibly inconsistent, where in some halves he’s hitting every shot or none of the shots. So who is the go-to guy? Is Joe Muzzula right to be deciding to not call a timeout when the Celtics had a chance to win game 4 twice? Boston has made a multitude of mistakes that they never seem to make, so are cracks showing Boston’s foundation? Is it just an inconsistency? All the pressure is on Boston heading into Game 5.

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