The Wells Fargo Center crowd waved blue rally towels for more than two hours throughout Game 4 on Sunday afternoon, spontaneously turning into a unified sea of arms, turning on the referee’s “no good” signal in hopes that Marcus Smart’s three-pointer had gone out. His hands after the final buzzer beat of overtime.
When the video replay was officially confirmed, those 76ers fans went into a frenzy.
It ensured the Sixers’ instant-classic victory over the Boston Celtics — James Harden’s game-winning corner three-pointer preceded Smart’s too-late shot — to pull them back to life in their Eastern Conference semifinal series. 2-2 tie.
“No matter how it plays out, I want to win,” Harden said after scoring 42 points and adding nine assists and eight rebounds in a big bounce-back performance. “Quite frankly, do or die for us today.”
After Harden’s second 40-point outing in four games against the Celtics, the series is now guaranteed to come back to Philly for at least a Game 6. It came after the future Hall of Famer went 5-for-28 from the floor in Games 2 and 3, drawing a lot of outside criticism. NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid, who has been playing with a sprained knee, added 34 points, 13 rebounds and four assists in 46 minutes following a quick turnaround after Friday’s Game 3.
It was fitting that the Sixers’ two stars connected on a game-winning bucket when Embiid found Harden on the strong side for a deep shot. After Embiid entered the paint against the smaller Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown moved from the corner for defensive help, the big man called Harden an “unbelievable” pass for a catch-and-shoot opportunity.
“It was an easy play,” Embiid said. “It’s a belief we’ve talked about all season.”
However, the Sixers had to keep pace with a furious Celtics rally from 16 points in the third to take a five-point lead with under two minutes remaining. Harden forced overtime with a floater that tied the score at 107 with 16.1 seconds to play before fouling off a smart three-point try just before the buzzer.
Boston pulled even at 96-96 early when Tatum followed up three-pointers by Smart and Brown with a scooping reverse layup with less than six minutes left. Then, after Embiid and Tyrus Maxey were blocked at the rim, Al Horford flew into the lane for a dunk and celebrated with a shrug to his former home crowd.
Back-to-back three-pointers by Smart and Malcolm Brockton extended that Celtics lead to 105-100, before Harden and PJ Tucker connected on an old-fashioned three-point play to tie the game at 105. There are minutes. Two smart free throws on the Celtics’ next possession before Harden’s tying shot gave them a two-point advantage.
The Sixers led by 16 points in the first half when Harden Embiid slung an alley-oop advance pass with less than two minutes to play before halftime. They held a double-digit lead for much of the third quarter before scoring just 15 points in the final period of regulation 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. Brockton, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, added 19 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
Game 5 is Tuesday night in Boston before the 6th on Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center. “We’ll know in a few days,” Tucker said of how Sunday’s thriller could provide positive momentum heading back to TD Garden.
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The home crowd responded with a mix of excitement and sarcasm when he switched drives in the first quarter, long before Harden’s crucial late-game buckets.
But then the scenes kept falling. and fall. and fall. He buried seven of his first eight attempts — more than he did in Games 2 and 3 — and scored 21 first-half points.
12 of those points came in the first five minutes of the second quarter, feasting on Embiid’s usual retirement. He hits a three-pointer while falling to the floor. Then a pull-up jumper. Then a float. Then another deep shot. And one more.
Harden then hit two three-pointers in the third quarter, one of which put the Sixers back up 76-61, prompting him and Embiid to cheer the crowd as they headed back to the bench for a timeout. He made seven of his nine shots in the third and fourth quarters, before his game-winner.
Harden and Rivers complimented the improved floor-spacing, with the Sixers’ solid screens running wide instead of congregating on one side of the floor, helping open up Harden’s shot-making. Getting into action early in the shot clock is also beneficial, Harden added. Rivers sent Harden the gospel song “You Know My Name” as some pregame motivation.
After Harden’s rough performances in Games 2 and 3, Rivers said, “In a day and a half, James had to pick himself up.” “Nobody’s done it but James.”
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A stingy defensive start
The Sixers were largely led by their defense during their 16-point first half, holding the Celtics to 38.3% from the floor.
Boston’s offensive struggles followed 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 2-for-16 in the first quarter. Tatum missed his first eight shots of the first half before hitting a jumper in the final minute before halftime.
“We were very aggressive,” said Tucker, one of the Sixers’ announcers and primary communicators on that end of the floor. “For us, I think being assertive, being aggressive is the difference between most of our games. When we come out early and assert ourselves, if everybody’s put together, we’re tough. When we don’t, we’re not.
“We could have scored a lot of points and still won games, but more times than not in the playoffs, you’re not going to win when we don’t. [aggressive]. We must continue to do so. “
That didn’t hold up in the second half, when Boston shot 57.1%. They outrebounded the Sixers 57-48, anchored by Tatum’s 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
A shortened cycle
Rotations often shrink as the playoffs progress, and Sixers wing Jalen McDaniels was squeezed Sunday.
That put both Harden and fellow starter Tobias Harris on the floor early in the second and fourth quarters along with De’Anthony Melton, Georges Niang and Paul Reed. That personnel group helped unleash Harden in the second quarter. But after the Celtics cut the Sixers’ lead to two minutes, Maxey and Tucker quickly chipped back in.
After the Rivers game, the coach admitted that although he believed going to the short bench was “the right thing to do,” it led to fatigue and a loss of offensive momentum. Four of their five starters played at least 45 minutes. A late deadline used by Rivers, “I thought we kind of rallied and got the wind back, just to give us a little bit of a break.”
“That one stretch, we were running [empty],” Rivers said. “We couldn’t get the ball on the ground, and that’s when they made a run. … It’s hard to draw a play when everybody’s tired, let me tell you that.
Niang was the second unit’s top performer, going 3 of 6 from long range for nine points in 19 minutes.
McDaniels, acquired by the Sixers at the February trade deadline, averaged two points on 25% shooting and 1.7 rebounds in 11.8 minutes through the first three games of the series.
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