A Wells Fargo Center crowd that spent more than two hours waving blue rally towels throughout Sunday afternoon’s Game 4 spontaneously transformed into a unified sea of arms crossing and separating, making nodded at a referee’s “not good” signal thinking Marcus Smart’s three-pointer had gone his hands after the final overtime buzzer.
And when the video replay officially confirmed it, those 76ers fans erupted into a frenzy.
It secured the Sixers’ classic 116-115 instant victory over the Boston Celtics – with James Harden’s three-point winning corner preceding Smart’s too late shot – to revive their streak of the Conference Semi-Finals of the East by dragging them into a 2-2 draw.
“No matter how it goes, I just want to win,” Harden said after scoring 42 points and adding nine assists and eight rebounds in a massive rebounding performance. “Quite frankly, today was do or die for us.”
This series is now guaranteed to return to at least Philadelphia for Game 6 after Harden’s second 40-point outing in four games against the Celtics. It arrived after the future Hall of Famer went a combined 5 of 28 from the floor in Games 2 and 3, drawing a slew of outside criticism. NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid, who continues to play with a sprained knee, added 34 points, 13 rebounds and four assists in 46 minutes after Friday’s Game 3 quick turnaround.
It was fitting for the two Sixers stars to connect on the winning bucket, when Embiid found Harden on the strong side for the deep shot. After Embiid got into the paint against the smaller Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown moved in from the corner to help defensively, the big man delivered what Harden called an “incredible” pass for the catching opportunity and shoot.
“It was an easy game,” Embiid said. “The confidence that we’ve been talking about throughout the season.”
Still, the Sixers needed to keep pace after a furious Celtics rally from 16 points in the third to take a five-point lead with less than two minutes left in regulation time. Harden forced overtime with a floater that tied the score at 107 with 16.1 seconds left, before Smart missed a three-point try just before the buzzer.
Boston first shot even at 96-96, when Tatum followed Smart and Brown’s three straight runs with a reverse layup with less than six minutes left. Then, after Embiid and Tyrese Maxey were pinned at the edge, Al Horford flew into the lane for a dunk and celebrated, shaking his shoulders to his former home crowd.
That Celtics lead grew to 105-100 on straight three-pointers from Smart and Malcolm Brogdon, before a layup from Harden and an old-school three-pointer on an inferior finish through contact from PJ Tucker tied the game. game at 105 with about a minute remaining. Two smart free throws on the Celtics’ next possession gave them a two-point advantage before Harden’s tying shot.
The Sixers led by as much as 16 points in the first half, when Harden threw an alley-oop lead pass to Embiid with less than two minutes left before the break. They held a double-digit lead for much of the third quarter, before scoring just 15 points in the final regulation period to fuel Boston’s comeback.
Tatum led the Celtics with 24 points, 18 rebounds and six assists, while Brown had 23 points and five assists. Brogdon, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, added 19 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
Game 5 takes place Tuesday night in Boston, before Game 6 Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center. As for how Sunday’s thriller could provide positive momentum at TD Garden, Tucker said, “We’ll find out in a few days.”
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Still of Harden
Long before Harden’s crucial late-game buckets, the home crowd reacted with cheers that sounded like a mixture of enthusiasm and sarcasticity when he converted a driving layup in the first quarter.
But then those knocks kept falling. And fall. And fall. He buried seven of his first eight attempts – more than he made in Games 2 and 3 combined – and scored 21 points in the first half.
Twelve of those points came in the first five minutes of the second quarter, feasting during Embiid’s usual rest period. He hit a three-pointer as he fell to the ground. Then a pull-up. Then a float. Then another deep shot. And another.
Harden then hit two three-pointers in the third quarter, including one that put the Sixers up, 76-61, and had him and Embiid cheering on a roaring crowd to get louder as they returned to the bench for a time out. He had seven of nine shots in the third and fourth quarters before his game-winner.
Harden and Rivers credited the Sixers’ solid screens, as well as improved ground spacing by running wide instead of gathering to one side of the ground, for helping to unlock Harden’s shot. Getting into action early in the shot clock was also beneficial, Harden added. Rivers even sent Harden a gospel song called “You Know My Name” as pregame motivation.
“For a day and a half James had to pull himself together,” Rivers said after Harden’s tough performances in Games 2 and 3. “Nobody did that except James.”
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Stingy defensive start
The Sixers largely built their 16-point first-half lead with their defense, keeping the Celtics 38.3% from the floor.
Boston’s offensive struggles came after a torrid start from Brown, who made his first five shots and scored 12 of his team’s first 14 points. But the rest of the Celtics shot a total of 2 of 16 in the first quarter. Tatum missed his first eight shots in the first half, before hitting a jumper in the final minute before the break.
“We were just being aggressive,” said Tucker, one of the Sixers’ anchors and key communicators on this end of the floor. “I think, for us, being assertive, being aggressive is the difference between most of our games. When we go out early and assert ourselves and everyone is bonded, we are tough. And when we don’t, we are not.
“We could score a lot of points and still win the games, but most of the time in the playoffs you won’t win if we’re not (aggressive). We must continue to do so.
It didn’t hold in the second half, when Boston shot 57.1% to come back strong. They outscored the Sixers, 57-48, anchored by 17 points by Tatum on 6-of-8 shooting.
Rotations often dwindle as the playoffs progress, and Sixers winger Jalen McDaniels was ousted on Sunday.
That put Harden and fellow starter Tobias Harris on the floor for the start of the second and fourth quarters alongside De’Anthony Melton, Georges Niang and Paul Reed. This staff consolidation helped release Harden in the second quarter. But after the Celtics cut the Sixers’ lead to seven about two minutes into the final frame, Maxey and Tucker quickly regained the upper hand.
Although Rivers said after the game that he thought a shorter bench “was the right thing to do”, the coach admitted it led to fatigue and a loss of attacking pace down the stretch. . Four of their five starters have played at least 45 minutes. A late timeout used by Rivers was “literally just to give us a little rest, and I thought we kind of got together and caught our breath.”
“That a stretch, we were running on (empty),” Rivers said. “We couldn’t get the ball on the ground, and that’s when they made their run. … It’s hard to write a play when everyone is tired, let me tell you.
Niang was the second unit’s best player, going 3 of 6 from long range for nine points in 19 minutes.
McDaniels, who was acquired by the Sixers at the February trade deadline, averaged two 25 percent points and 1.7 rebounds in 11.8 minutes in the first three games of this series.
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