A Wells Fargo Center crowd, who spent more than two hours waving blue pool towels all Sunday afternoon, Game 4 automatically turned into a uniform sea of arms crossing and breaking away, signaling the referee’s signal “not good” in the belief that Marcus Smart’s pointer The trio had left hands after the last bell of overtime.
And when the rerun of the video was officially confirmed, these 76 fans erupted into a frenzy.
This ensured the Sixers instant classic 116-115 win over the Boston Celtics – with a cornerback three-pointer won by James Harden before Smart’s very late shot – to reinject life into the Eastern Conference Semifinal series by pulling them to a 2-2 tie.
“No matter which way it plays out, I just want to win,” said Harden after scoring 42 points and adding nine assists and eight rebounds in a massive rebounding performance. “Quite honestly, today do or die for us.”
The series is now at least guaranteed to return to Philly for Game 6 after Harden’s second 40-point shutout in four games against the Celtics. She reached after the future Hall of Famer went 5 of 28 combined from the floor in Games 2 and 3, drawing many outside critics. 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 on a quick turnaround after Game 3 on Friday.
It was fitting that the two Sixers stars connected on the game-winning bucket, when Embiid found Harden on the strong side for the deep shot. After Embiid got into the paint against younger Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown moved in from the corner to help on defense, the big man threw what Harden called an “incredible” pass for catching and shooting opportunity.
“This was an easy play,” Embiid said. “The confidence we’ve been talking about all season.”
However, the Sixers needed to catch up after a furious Celtics rally from 16 points in the third to take a five-point lead with less than two minutes remaining in regulation. Harden forced overtime with a float that tied the score at 107 with 16.1 seconds to play, before Smart fizzled out a three-point attempt just before the buzzer.
Boston pulled the lead even at 96-96, when Tatum followed up three consecutive pointers by Smart and Brown with a reverse pass with less than six minutes to play. Then, after Embiid and Tyrese Maxey were blocked at the rim, Al Horford flew down the fairway for a dunk and celebrated by shrugging his shoulders to his former home crowd.
The Celtics’ lead grew to 105–100 on three consecutive three-pointers by Smart and Malcolm Brogdon, before a Harden layup and an old-fashioned three-point play into the bottom end via a touchdown by PJ Tucker tied the game at 105 with about a minute remaining. Two clever free throws on the next ball gave the Celtics a two-point advantage before Harden hit the game.
The Sixers led by as many as 16 points in the first half, when Harden hit a leadoff pass to Embiid with less than two minutes to play before the break. They held a double-digit lead for much of the third quarter, before scoring just 15 points in the final period of regulation to support a Boston comeback.
Tatum led the Celtics with 24 points, 18 rebounds and six assists, while Brown had 23 points and five assists. Brogdon, the sixth NBA player of the year, added 19 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
Game five is on Tuesday night in Boston, ahead of game six on Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center. As for how the Sunday thriller can provide positive momentum back at TD Garden, Tucker said, “We’ll know in a few days.”
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Long before Harden’s crucial late-game punt, the home crowd had reacted with cheers that felt like a mixture of enthusiasm and sarcasm when he converted a layup in the first quarter.
But then those shots kept falling. and fall. and fall. He buried seven of his first eight attempts – more than he did 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, a feast during Embiid’s usual rest period. He hit a triple pointer as he fell to the ground. Then a pull hop. Then pontoon. Then another deep shot. and another.
Harden then hit two of his three pointers in the third quarter, including one that put the Sixers back, 76-61, and he and Embiid prompted him to encourage the boisterous crowd to raise their voice as they returned to the bench for a timeout. He made seven of his nine shots in the third and fourth quarters, before winning the game.
Harden and Rivers credited the Sixers’ solid screens, along with improving floor spacing by running wide instead of huddled on one side of the ground, with helping to open up Harden’s shooting. Harden added that taking action early on the shot clock was also helpful. Rivers even sent Hardin a gospel song called “You Know My Name” as a pre-roll.
“For a day in the half, James had to pick himself up,” Rivers said after Harden’s tough performance in Games 2 and 3.
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A stingy defensive start
The Sixers dramatically built their 16-point halftime lead with their defense, holding the Celtics up to 38.3% from the floor.
Boston’s offensive struggles came after a scorching start from the Browns, who hit his first five shots and scored 12 of his team’s first 14 points. But the rest of the Celtics shot 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 aggressive,” said Tucker, one of the Sixers’ announcers and chief liaison at that end of the floor. “I think, for us, being assertive, being aggressive is the difference between most of our matches. When we come out early and assert ourselves and everyone is bonded together, we are strong. And when we don’t, we don’t.
“We may score a lot of points and still win games, but a lot of times in qualifying you don’t win when we’re not. [aggressive]. We have to continue to do that.”
That didn’t hold up in the second half, when Boston shot 57.1 percent to get back up again. They outscored the Sixers, 57-48, anchored by 17 points by Tatum on 6-of-8 shooting.
Courses often narrow as the playoffs progress, and Sixers winger Jalen McDaniels was fired on Sunday.
That put Harden and fellow rookie Tobias Harris on the floor early in the second and fourth quarters along with DeAnthony Milton, George Niang and Paul Reed. This personnel rally helped unleash Harden’s lead in the second quarter. But after the Celtics cut the Sixers’ lead to seven minutes about two minutes into the final frame, Maxie and Tucker quickly stormed back.
Although Rivers said after the game that he believed going on a shorter bench “was the right thing to do”, the coach admitted that it led to fatigue and a loss of offensive speed down the stretch. Four of the five starters have played at least 45 minutes. The late reprieve used by Rivers was “literally just to give us a little break, and I thought we kind of pulled together and caught the wind.”
That distance, 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 set up a play when everyone’s tired, let me just say that.”
Niang had the best performance in the second unit, 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 2 points on 25% and 1.7 rebounds in 11.8 minutes in the first three games of the series.
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