PHILADELPHIA — James Harden was on his way to the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday afternoon when coach Doc Rivers texted him with a song called “Do You Know My Name?”
It’s a gospel song, maybe one that’s not Harden’s normal playlist, but he decided to put it on. Rivers had never sent Harden a song before, so it was a surprise.
“So I just said to my homies, ‘Let’s play the song,'” Harden said. “It’s a seven-minute song, but I let the whole song play. And I’m like, ‘Okay, there must be some kind of good juju in this song, or whatever it feels like, I want to feel like that.’ I guess it worked.
Oh, that worked out well. Sitting next to Harden as he told the story, PJ Tucker told his longtime teammate, “You better play again.”
Rivers’ message to Harden after two back-to-back breaks, somewhat short on subtlety, was to be James Harden again. It did just that by delivering its second masterpiece in the series in a do-or-die game.
The Philadelphia 76ers head back to Boston tied 2-2 in their Eastern Conference Semifinals series after a thrilling 116-115 overtime victory in South Philadelphia on Sunday. Game 5 is at 7:30 p.m. (ET) Tuesday night.
Harden’s stat line on Sunday was remarkable: 42 points on 16 of 23 shooting from the field, nine assists on a single turnover, eight rebounds and four steals. After putting in her best playoff performance of a 14-year NBA career in Game 1, Harden waited just six days to surpass her.
And that he sandwiched those two dominating performances around two full no-show efforts – Harden shot an unfathomable 5 of 28 from the field in games 2 and 3 – underscores that there is perhaps no- to be no current NBA player with more variability on a game-to-game basis. The Sixers and Philadelphia are riding the Harden roller coaster.
“I mean, I’m still motivated and excited,” Harden said. “It’s just that things haven’t worked out the way I would like, but that’s part of it. But I am a competitor. I always want to win, I always want to be aggressive.
For most of Game 4, the Sixers were the superior team. They came out with more energy and an aggressive defensive mindset. No one has epitomized that more than 6-foot-2 Tyrese Maxey, who had two career-high interceptions, a block and six rebounds in the first quarter.
The offense was executed to perfection for three quarters. Their spacing, after a Saturday movie session which Rivers and Maxey said involved “extremely candid dialogue,” has improved a lot. In the non-Embiid minutes, Harden ran the show perfectly. For the first time in the series, the Sixers were ahead. They largely dictated the game.
Aldridge: James Harden and Joel Embiid figured it out together when it mattered most
But the Celtics lagged because of the little things. They pressed their speed advantage once again and got 20.2% of their offense in transition, according to Cleaning The Glass, and that pace led to easy buckets.
Other times the Sixers have made self-inflicted mistakes: whether it’s Maxey taking a two-on-one shot with 38 seconds on the clock, letting Jaylen Brown score two after bouncing his missed free throw, a General blown coverage or a missed mission, there’s plenty for the Sixers to clean up.
In the fourth quarter, the Sixers stopped leading their offense. They only scored 15 points in the last 12 minutes. They got tired and then tight. Boston’s bench exploded repeatedly, as the Celtics gained confidence and took a five-point lead with 2 minutes and 4 seconds left.
No one-on-one clash summed up the final quarter better than the one between Al Horford and Joel Embiid. Boston’s first lead came on a drive-thru dunk from Horford, who did a dance after throwing it, tormenting the Philadelphia crowd. He blocked Embiid’s shot three times in the last eight minutes, bringing back painful memories from 2018.
Embiid was gassed, perhaps rightly – he played 41 minutes in regulation time on short rest, after not playing any basketball for nearly two weeks – but, fair or not, his underplay- close to the game would have been heavily scrutinized if the Sixers had done ‘don’t come back.
“I was terrible tonight,” Embiid said. “I have to be better, I will be better.”
But the Sixers came back. After gifting a Rolex to Embiid on Wednesday, Harden bailed out his teammate on Sunday. Down five, Harden responded with a lay-up hit by Malcolm Brogdon. To send the game into overtime, he hit a running floater from the free throw line that featured an extremely high degree of difficulty.
The Sixers Never win this game. We’ve seen it many times over the past few seasons, especially when these two teams are involved. Earlier this season, Embiid’s 70 was half a second behind. Sunday was Marcus Smart’s 3-pointer. Jayson Tatum hit a dagger at the end of regulation in that game, but Smart missed a wide-opening shot to win the game on Sunday.
When the Sixers win games in this series, it won’t be perfect. Boston is too good, with too many upsides he can squeeze.
“They take the lead and we keep fighting,” Harden said. “We don’t just shut down and we continue to fight, take shots and take possession in a timely manner. Like, that’s what basketball is.
Much has been written about the contract that President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey handed to Tucker during the offseason: three years and $33 million after a few penalties for tampering. After all, Tucker has gone scoreless in 22 games this season and he’s dropped open 3s with regularity. And even in a postseason series, teams are helping Tucker around the corners with impunity, trying to clog the paint for Embiid and Harden. Sometimes it works, forcing Rivers’ hand to replace De’Anthony Melton or Georges Niang.
But the message all season, both from the Sixers internally and from Tucker, was to be patient and wait for the playoffs. This is when he would make the effort to play in high leverage situations that deflate opponents and swing plays. And in one streak, Tucker had both the tangible and intangible impact the Sixers were looking for when they offered this deal.
With the Sixers leading 105-102 with just over a minute left in regulation, Embiid and Tobias Harris played the hot potato on a miserable possession where neither player seemed genuinely interested in shooting. Harris threw an airball, which fell directly into Tucker’s lap. Lucky perhaps, but also the product of a player who constantly carves out a rebounding position. Tucker converted a layup and was fouled, an unlikely and grueling sequence of events. The camera cut out Julius Erving in a suite, who looked up at the sky in disbelief.
“The 3-point game is just willpower, determination, just wanting to win,” Tucker said. “I had just come back into the game, so I had to leave an imprint one way or another and usually an offensive rebound in those times.”
But then Tucker did something even more important. After walking to the free throw line, as the whole arena celebrated the play he had just made, he turned and walked towards a weary Embiid on the block. And just like he did with Paul Reed in Game 1, he chewed up the league’s most valuable player.
And Embiid responded well enough in overtime, scoring four points on 1-of-2 shooting and providing the assist.
“Nobody can keep Jo one-on-one,” Tucker said. “There’s no way, I’m sorry. It’s not a disrespect to Al or anyone else. I’ve had him for many years and when he’s aggressive and assertive, it’s impossible. And I’ve seen him two, three games in a row not do that. And we can’t have that, not with the season at stake.”
And then there was the final game. Harris fended off Embiid and the Celtics changed the action, which the Sixers were looking for. There was the option for Harden, the inbounder, to then perform a dribble pass with Embiid. But he stayed in the corner and let Embiid attack Tatum one-on-one. It’s the unspoken chemistry between these two that we saw at the end of a win over Portland.
Embiid had the perfect “three-and-one” spacing that he and Harden worked on all season. He took a few dribbles and backed Tatum off when Jaylen Brown made a mistake. He assisted the corner from the strong side, a cardinal sin and a curious decision up two points. Embiid made the right play and Harden hit the winner.
“As soon as I saw JB assist in the strong corner, it was an easy game,” Embiid said. “The confidence that we’ve been talking about throughout the season.”
Embiid referred to a similar play at the end of a February loss to Miami. He doubled two runs, made good play and Harden got a catch-and-shoot 3. That one didn’t go in, but after the game Embiid and Harden said they could live with the execution.
Harden doesn’t take many catch-and-shoot 3s. But he has worked on it this season, increasing the number to 1.8 attempts per game. He won’t be mistaken for Klay Thompson anytime soon, but that work has paid off.
“He should tell every creepy kid to work on their weaknesses,” Rivers said. “Keep working on it, and you never know.”
Boston is plus-41 in the series. But it’s related because in two toss-ups, Philadelphia has played better down the stretch. Rivers said the Sixers “ran our butts in overtime.” They also overcame some questionable calls on the stretch, including a key push of Tatum who was not called.
The Sixers return to Boston as underdogs but with a chance to do something special.
“This team is tough,” Rivers said. “It doesn’t guarantee wins, it doesn’t guarantee anything, but we’re not going to leave. And that’s what it was about tonight.
(Top photo: Eric Hartline/USA Today)
More 76ers-Celtics coverage from Athleticism :
David Aldridge: James Harden and Joel Embiid figured out together when it mattered most
Jared Weiss: How the Celtics lost a second to the 76ers: Two crucial decisions cost them
Jay King: Celtics’ Al Horford brings optimism despite disastrous Game 4 ending in Philadelphia
Steve Buckley: Celtics squander win, express optimism, but what exactly did they learn?