“Aggressive” Harden takes over as the 76s stun the Cs

"Aggressive" Harden takes over as the 76s stun the Cs

BOSTON — As seconds ticked on the clock, Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden continued to eye both the basket and his defender, Boston Celtics center Al Horford, with the Sixers in the final seconds of play 1 of the Eastern were down by one in Monday night’s conference semifinals.

And, as he’s done countless times before in his Hall of Fame career, Harden saw the moment he could pull off the disconnect necessary to step off his patented step-back sweater — and seized it.

As the ball slipped softly through the net for Harden that night – cementing his playoff career-high 45 points in the process – teammate Joel Embiid celebrated wildly on the touchline, Harden and the 76ers had stolen home with a thrilling 119 -115 victory without him.

“I haven’t felt any of those zones in a minute,” Harden said afterwards with a smile. “You know what I mean? Just being aggressive and shooting the basketball and doing what I want.

“That felt really good. … I’m capable of it, so it felt good. It felt good to do this recording, to give ourselves a chance.”

Few believed Philadelphia would have much of a chance after Embiid, who was dealing with a sprained collateral ligament in his right knee on April 20, was officially ruled out about 90 minutes before the game started.

But few would have believed that Harden would deliver perhaps the greatest performance of his playoff career. He came out and hit his first five shots, setting the tone for Philadelphia on a night when the game threatened to break away early from the 76ers because Boston went off the field 17-to-20 in the first quarter alone.

The fact that the game was still within striking distance was almost entirely due to Harden.

“I thought he just had the perfect attitude tonight,” said 76ers coach Doc Rivers. “He really has. I’m so happy for him because it just tells you what he can do on certain nights.

“The guy’s a Hall of Famer, and all you hear is the other stuff about him. And he was fantastic.”

After Embiid was sidelined, Philadelphia made a point of doing something the Celtics often do: try to win the math game by passing Boston from the deep. Harden – who ended the game 17-30 from the field, including 7-14 from 3-point range – fired more than half as many 3-point attempts as the entire Celtics team (26) and made nearly as many ( Boston finished with 10 triples).

And none of them were bigger than the one he threw over Horford, who came after a wild sequence in which Malcolm Brogdon threw a pass straight at Tyrese Maxey with 0.1 seconds remaining on the shot clock, sending Maxey running ahead of the field and Lien got the ball in to put Philadelphia by a point.

When Jayson Tatum was fouled on the ensuing offensive possession, Rivers switched on Georges Niang for Paul Reed before Tatum took his second free throw, opting not to take his final time-out and instead giving Harden a chance to chase his preferred matchup.

And when Harden realized the Celtics weren’t going to send a doubles team on him, he did just that.

“I came off the screen and wondered if they were going to put two on the ball,” Harden said. “So when I crossed the ball and got it back out, it was just like, ‘Stay home, it’s a one-on-one.’ … Then I just look up and I’m straight [saying]’All right, I work on that every day.’

“Get the best shot available, no matter what it is. And you know… get up and shoot it.”

Afterwards, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was asked if he thought Boston should have attempted to double Harden on that last possession rather than keep him isolated against Horford given the rhythm he had gotten into during the game.

“We doubled in the first half and they took six points against the doubles teams on Harden,” Mazzulla said. “In hindsight, it’s always 20-20. If we hadn’t doubled him it would have been a great defense. If we doubled it and they got a shot, it would have been, ‘Why did we double it?’”

But the Celtics didn’t double Harden, and he rose and buried a dagger in Boston and his sell-out crowd of 19,156, giving the 76ers a monumental win.

The 76ers not only stole home field advantage back in the series, but also without Embiid — who could become the NBA’s most valuable player Tuesday night if either he, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, or Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo becomes the winner chosen.

Now that Embiid is recovering from that LCL sprain, the 76ers have already accomplished what they set out to do when they arrived in Boston.

“I think we’re proud to play without the big guy,” said 76ers forward PJ Tucker. “As good as he is, I think it gives an opportunity for others to step up and play. James can sort of do his thing, Tyrese is obviously really good without Jo, and everyone else… everyone took a little step forward when he came out. It’s such a proud thing for us.

It was clearly a matter of pride for Harden, who after Philadelphia’s Game 4 win over the Brooklyn Nets to end a first-round win said his focus this season has been sacrificing himself to improve the team . But that night, with Embiid sidelined, it wasn’t about making sacrifices — it was about being aggressive and trying to lead Philadelphia to a win.

“I don’t have to give an explanation,” Harden said. “My coaches, my teammates, what they’ve been asking me to do all year was to be a go-between and get Joel the basketball and score if needed. Joel wasn’t here tonight, you know what I mean? And we knew that going into this series.

“Now it’s like, ‘Okay, open the floor. James, you’re being aggressive.’ “And tonight I was aggressive. So it’s not that I can’t do it, it’s just… that’s my role on this team. Well, if you want me to.” [what I did] tonight, then I can do that too.

“I don’t think many players can do that. So yes, I appreciate that.”

#Aggressive #Harden #takes #76s #stun

Lion-eyed CB Devon Witherspoon;  The team considered taking Jahmyr Gibbs in 6th place

Lion-eyed CB Devon Witherspoon; The team considered taking Jahmyr Gibbs in 6th place

Horford: Celtics slacked defensively, Embiid was out

Horford: Celtics slacked defensively, Embiid was out