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Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Sans Embiid, Sixers Stun Celtics as Harden Scores 45 Points

"That's why they play the games" is a cliche, but cliches exist because they contain at least a kernel of truth. "No Embiid, No Chance" may have seemed to be a likely headline for game one of the Boston-Philadelphia second round series, but James Harden and the 76ers had other ideas: Harden tied his playoff career-high with 45 points--including 15 in a nip and tuck fourth quarter--as the 76ers swiped homecourt advantage from their longstanding Eastern Conference rival. The Celtics and 76ers have faced each other in the playoffs more often than any other two teams in NBA history. On paper, the Celtics had the advantage even before it was announced that a knee injury would force MVP candidate Joel Embiid to miss at least the first game. The Celtics built a 12 point first half lead, but they never put the game away, and the 76ers closed the game out with a 5-0 run: Harden drilled a three pointer to put the 76ers up 117-115 with 8.1 seconds remaining, and then Paul Reed hit two free throws after stealing Boston's inbounds pass.

I almost fell out of my chair listening to Harden's on-court post-game interview. Asked about his performance, Harden said with a straight face that he does this all the time and that is why he shot the game-winning three pointer with confidence. In case you forgot--and Harden clearly forgot--Harden averaged 17.3 ppg while shooting .343 from the field versus the Nets in the first round, he had shot better than .450 from the field once in his past 10 playoff games, and just three times in his first 16 playoff games as a 76er. Prior to this game, Harden had scored at least 30 points once in his previous 20 playoff games, and he scored less than 20 points in 12 of those games. If Harden had been given truth serum before the interview, he would have said, "I don't know why I shot that shot with confidence, because I have played poorly in the playoffs for so long I had every reason to think that I would miss the shot."

In all seriousness, Harden deserves credit for playing very well when his team needed a lift in Embiid's absence. His post-game comments may demonstrate a blissful lack of self-awareness, but--regardless of his state of mind or his elevated opinion of himself--no one can deny that he got the job done not only in terms of volume but also efficiency, shooting 17-30 (.567) from the field. How unusual is that field goal percentage for Mr. "I do this all the time"? The last time that he shot .567 or better from the field in a playoff game was 11 playoff games ago--and to find the previous occurrence before that you have to go back another 10 games, to when he was a Houston Rocket. 

Speaking of doing things all the time, the Celtics are developing a habit of permitting inefficient volume scorers to have big playoff games against them; they lost their previous home playoff game (game five of their first round series versus the Atlanta Hawks) after Trae Young dropped 38 points on them, though they did hold him to 14-33 (.424) field goal shooting in that contest.

The Celtics squandered a 2-1 lead versus the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 NBA Finals before losing that series in six games, and since that setback they have vowed that they are on a mission to complete this season with a championship, but they sometimes seem to lose focus in the middle of the mission. The Celtics should be able to beat the 76ers even if Embiid plays, but at best they have needlessly prolonged this series, which could be costly down the road--and, at worst, they may have given an inferior team just enough confidence to pull off the upset. After the eighth seeded Miami Heat took the lead in the first round versus the Milwaukee Bucks they never fell behind in the series, even after Giannis Antetokounmpo returned from his back injury and put up big boxscore numbers.

Tyrese Maxey (26 points), Tobias Harris (18 points), and De'Anthony Melton (17 points) provided plenty of support for Harden. As Boston's Sixth Man of the Year Award winner Malcolm Brogdon said after the game, the Celtics could withstand Harden having a big game if they had "shut off the water" for some of Philadelphia's other players. 

Jayson Tatum (39 points on 14-25 field goal shooting with 11 rebounds and five assists) did his part for the Celtics, but Jaylen Brown had a quiet 23 points: he attempted just 10 shots for the entire game, and he only scored seven points in the second half with the outcome in the balance. The Celtics committed 16 turnovers while the 76ers only committed six turnovers, and that disparity contributed to the 76ers launching 89 field goal attempts compared to the Celtics' 75 field goal attempts. 

The Celtics' problems are correctable: play harder, be more careful with the ball, have more game plan discipline defensively. TNT's Kenny Smith is correct that championship teams sometimes have bad playoff games during their title runs. For that reason, one should not overreact to this game--but if the Celtics are truly committed to their stated mission, they will display a different disposition and a different energy level from the start of game two until the final buzzer sounds.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:27 AM



At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 3:18:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know, I know, confirmation bias and all but this was kind of what I was talking about earlier about this Celtics team's lack of focus/consistent defense and dubious coaching.

You're supposed to be this elite defense with last year's DPOY and you give up 45 to James Harden in a game where you don't even need to sweat Embiid? Last time he scored that many points was 2020, and the last time he did it in the playoffs was 2015... and that time he shot 13 FTs. This time he only shot 4. It's one thing to if Harden roasts you when the refs are bailing him out but he beat these guys clean! Heck there were even a few whistles he probably should have gotten but didn't (which is delicious every time, incidentally).

Of his other 24 highest-scoring playoff games I could get Stat Muse to show me without paying for it, the lowest FTA total was 7 in a 42 point game against Dallas, also back in 2015. Let's be polite and say he was closer to his athletic prime then.

Every team has off nights, but the difference between this and (for example) GSW getting rolled by Sac in Game 6 is that Sac is actually really good and wasn't missing their best guy. How do you let this Philly team cook you this way?

Should still be a winnable series for Boston, even easily, but between this and Atlanta they're now putting three extra games of mileage they don't need on both Timelord's glass joints and Al Horford's old bones. If one of those guys goes down later they're gonna wish they had this one back.

Also gives Philly the option to rest Embiid for G2 more confidently knowing they still have a chance to win (and to your point, you don't want to give a team confidence). Even if Boston wins Game 2 (as they should) they might have to work harder to do it than they would have if Philly thinks they smell blood in the water.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 12:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Harden playing this well without help from the referees is the last thing that I expected to see in game one, but before you trash the Celtics keep in mind what Kenny Smith said about even championship teams having a bad playoff game. For example, the 1985 L.A. Lakers suffered the so-called Memorial Day Massacre versus the Boston Celtics and then won the Finals in six games.

I am not comparing the 2023 Celtics to the 1985 Lakers in terms of overall quality, but the point is that individual athletes and teams are not robots. You can have a bad day even in an important game but still claim the larger prize. In the just-concluded World Chess Championship, Ding Liren "froze" and lost a game, but he bounced back to claim the title.

The game one loss is a bad look for the Celtics, but it is not a fatal setback.

There are many good reasons that I pay no attention to the hot take specials offered by ESPN, by many writers, and by some of the Sirius XM NBA Radio commentators: they are scraping the bottom of the barrel for content because they either don't understand the nature of competition, or because they think that their hot takes are good for ratings.

If you look at my predictions, I don't get everything right--no one does--but I don't make crazy, attention-seeking statements. For example, I had sound reasons for picking Sacramento to beat Golden State. I was wrong about the outcome, but my reasoning was sound (and upon further consideration I decided that I may tend to underestimate Stephen Curry).

The logical prediction is that the Celtics will beat the 76ers because the Celtics have a better team and a sounder organization; the 76ers' reliance on tanking to build their squad means that they have a foundation of quicksand, not solid materials--their players have not learned how to fight through adversity, because the organization believes that "strategic" losing is OK, which also means that there can be an excuse provided for any loss. If the 76ers lose, they will offer many excuses and little to no accountability.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 1:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's not go crazy and compare getting embarrassed by a no-Embiid 76ers team to being blown out by a team with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish on it. Everybody gets torched by good teams occasionally, particularly on the Road (and even more particularly in the old-school Boston Garden of the 80s).

It was also less of a recurring theme for those Lakers, who swept their first round series against a Suns team that would have obliterated the 2023 Hawks, and then lost just one game each to some pretty decent Portland and Denver teams on their way to the Celtics. The Memorial Day Massacre was their third loss of the playoffs, and it came in the Finals. The Celtics just had their third loss of the playoffs in the first game of the second round.

Obviously this is not fatal by itself, and we've seen teams like the '95 Rockets and '08 Celtics take the "scenic route" in early rounds and still win the title, but it does speak to the lack of focus that concerns me about this Celtics team (who do not have anyone nearly as good as Hakeem Olajuwon or Kevin Garnett, though maybe someday Tatum will approach that conversation).

I also still expect the Celtics to win this series, but this kind of lackadaisical effort is just the sort of thing that makes me hesitate to crown them as serious favorites over Denver or GSW or whoever, and these extra games they're volunteering themselves for by fritting away winnable gimmes against both Atlanta and Philadelphia are only going to get more likely to come back and bite them in the form of injury or fatigue the more they do it.

The Celtics are very deep at guard but very thin in the frontcourt, with two of their key players (and their only "true" bigs) being either old (Horford) or injury prone (Williams). They likely cannot weather a sustained absence or serious reduction in efficacy from either, so farting around in extra playoff games against lesser teams is dangerous.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 2:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I made it clear that I am not comparing the quality of the 2023 teams to the quality of the 1985 teams from these two examples. The point, which was also made by Kenny Smith (who played on two NBA championship teams), is that even the greatest teams can have an off day. A team with Magic, Kareem, Worthy, and the rest "should not" lose by more than 30 points to anyone at any time, but these things happen.

The 72-10 Chicago Bulls lost a regular season game to the Knicks 104-72.

Robots can perform at the same level minute after minute, day after day, year after year. Human beings do not perform at the same level--let alone peak level--all day every day.

That is why I get the feeling that you are picking on the Celtics in some sense, because you frame your critique as if you are singling out some special, fatal flaw that the Celtics have, when in reality we are just talking about the nature of competition in general.

We agree that the Celtics "should not" have lost, and that it was a bad loss in that regard. I don't see a reason to believe that this is a fundamental indictment of the coaching staff and of the team's overall capability to win the NBA title.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 2:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't feel like I'm picking on them per se, this is what I've been worried about with them all season.

It isn't just one game, either. It's three of their seven playoff games so far. They have not demonstrated consistent effort against lesser competition. That is not necessarily a fatal flaw but it is absolutely a flaw.

The last time the eventual champions lost more than one game in Round 1 was the 2014 Spurs, who went 7 against Dallas. That Dallas team was a lot scarier than the Hawks team the Celtics let hang around, IMO, and those Spurs were multi-time champions who it was a bit easier to believe could "lock in" when they had to than a Celtics team who hasn't proved they can sustain their focus yet.

Yes, they made the Finals last year but part of the reason they lost when they got there is that they were banged up from two seven-game series they probably should have won in five against an injured Bucks team and an undermanned Heat. These kind of losses seem tailor-made for repeating that pattern.

Given that the Celtics have deigned to show up for only four of their seven playoff games so far (and only barely for Game 6) I think it's fair to suggest they do not have the focus we typically see from title teams.

It is not necessarily enough to doom them but it is enough, for me, to knock them from "obvious favorites" to merely "contenders."

I would still say they are the second or third likeliest champ remaining, but efforts like this make it hard for me to see them as a strong favorite. The other teams all have their own flaws (Denver's defense, Phoenix's depth, GSW's everything-but-Curry, Miami/New York/Philly's health, LA's age & effort) but I think most of those teams are good enough that if you give the a free game or two you're going to have a bad time.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 3:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


On the other hand, the Celtics' core group led by Tatum and Brown has reached four ECFs in six years, with one Finals trip. Other than the GS crew, which core group left standing has that kind of postseason resume? When evaluating these teams, should we look at individual games, or seasons' worth of data?

LeBron obviously has a deeper postseason resume than the Celtics, but the best parts of his resume happened a long time ago (in terms of sports), and his L.A. resume includes one "bubble" title plus missing the playoffs and squeaking in via the Play-In Tournament.

If one bases picking the favorite of the remaining teams on who seems most "focused," the Celtics trail only GS.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 3:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I were ranking "focus" I would not have the Celtics ahead of the Heat or Nuggets, and I would probably not have them ahead of the Knicks or Suns, either. I would rank the Warriors maybe third on that list mostly due to pedigree; they're the rare team that has shown they actually do have a "switch" they can flip.

When Miami or Denver or Phoenix lose, it's mostly because they get outplayed, or because they have a systemic weakness or talent debt. The Celtics are probably the most talented team in the league, but when they lose, it's often because they aren't playing hard and just get outworked. I think that's a difference. Only Tatum really seemed like he gave a crap last night. Last year in the biggest games of the Finals, it felt like Andrew Wiggins wanted every rebound more than anybody on the Celtics did. Credit to Wiggins, but a guy like that getting 16 boards against a team full of trees like Boston is an effort/heart/focus issue, not a talent issue.

The Lakers are a question mark. Like the Celtics, they farted around too much in Round 1 and lost some games they should have won.

But I think the Celtics are better than the Lakers and the Grizzlies are better than the Hawks, so it maybe shouldn't have taken the Celtics as long to beat a bad team as it took the Lakers to beat a decent one.

I still have Boston likely to come out of the East (they're talented enough to win series against the weak remaining East teams even with their focus issues) but I think I like Denver slightly more as a title contender, or Golden State if they stay healthy.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 8:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I follow the NBA closely, and I must have missed when the current versions of the Heat and Nuggets displayed enough focus to reach the Conference Finals four times in the past six years.

You and I may have different definitions of "focus," or a different interpretation of how to determine if a team is focused.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 8:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we do have different definitions of "focus."

Yours appears to simply be "who wins the most." I think talent has at least as much to do with that as focus, and most times probably more. The Celtics are fantastically talented, moreso than anyone else left in the East, and perhaps more than anyone left in the West too. They have two All-NBA level stars who are also freak athletes, a former All-NBA/All-Defense level star who is still very good, a DPOY, a Sixth Man of the Year, and several other All-Defensive level defenders and above-average athletes. All of their Top 7 players would be no worse than, say, Miami or Phoenix's third or fourth best player, and their best two players are at least competitive with anyone else's in terms of talent and athleticism.

My definition of focus is more about playing hard and executing on the little things/details. It is about effort and intelligence more than ability. It is an important part of winning but not the only part.

The Heat are not all that talented outside of their top two players. But they play hard every night, they make few careless turnovers (not all turnovers are careless, so overall TO numbers are not what I mean here), they fight for every 50/50 ball, they rebound very well for a generally undersized team, they do not settle for too many lazy pull-up threes, they execute their defensive gameplans with precision and energy, and they take very few nights off.

Jayson Tatum is more talented than Jimmy Butler. He is taller, longer, stronger, and a better jump shooter. He can score from more areas of the floor and in more ways. He can probably guard more positions. But he does not always play as hard, he makes more careless turnovers, and even in must-win games or moments he is more likely to be bullied out of the paint and settle for contested long jumpers.

For a historical perspective, I would say that someone like Kobe Bryant had less talent than someone than Lebron James, but more focus. You are going to get Kobe's best effort a lot more consistently than you are going to get Lebron's, even if Lebron is perhaps capable of more things on his best night than Kobe is.

To put it in a sentence, I guess I think talent is what you're capable of doing, while focus is how you go about trying to do it.

That is what I mean by "focus," and if Boston loses it will likely be because they don't have enough of it.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 9:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with much of your general concept of what focus is. I disagree with your specific assertions about the Boston Celtics. It takes more than just pure talent to reach the Conference Finals year after year. The NBA has some built in parity to the extent that a team can make a fluky Conference Finals run (Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers). The Celtics are perennial Eastern Conference Finalists. Tatum and Brown have improved their individual games and their team play year after year. All of that improvement and sustained success requires focus.

I will reiterate that I think that, for some reason that I don't know enough about you to discern, you are inclined to hold this Boston team to a harsher standard than the standard that you apply to other teams.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 9:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey if there's another surviving playoff team that's already given away three wins (two at home) to weak teams I'm happy to criticize them, too.

Of current surviving teams, only the Warriors have lost three games (one of which I'd characterize as a "focus" loss FWIW), but I don't imagine many would disagree with me that the Kings are a more threatening opponent than the Hawks or the no-Embiid Sixers.

I don't think I'm being terribly hard on a team by saying they're my second pick behind a one-seeded team with a two-time MVP on it, but I suppose you're free to decide whatever you like about me.

It will be interesting to revisit this conversation in a few weeks.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 10:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, it will be interesting to revisit this conversation, though I suspect we will remember the conversation differently. I am not sure that I follow the logic of saying that the Celtics consistently lack focus and they are your second pick to win the championship.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 10:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first mentioned it as part of a list of what I felt each team's fatal flaw was, expressing why I felt it was more wide open than usual. I also listed one for Denver (defense), who is my first pick. I brought it back up in this thread because I felt that game typified my concerns.

I feel all of the remaining teams are "beatable" in a louder way than most champions. The Celtics are higher on my list than most because their problem is at least one they can theoretically fix, while teams like Phoenix can't really do much to get deeper and various other teams don't have much say over their already mounting injuries. The Warriors and Lakers are similarly unlikely to get younger by the time the playoffs end.

Denver's problem is a little different in that I feel they're vulnerable in the pick and roll to a certain type of guard (namely Steph Curry) but Boston doesn't necessarily have one of those, so I would like Denver's chances against them.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 10:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


A fatal flaw presumably kills you, but I think I get your point now. You are listing the most concerning flaw for each remaining team, and your chief concern about the Celtics is what you perceive to be their lack of focus.

I picked the Celtics to beat the 76ers in six games, knowing in advance that Embiid would likely miss at least one game. I did not make a game by game prediction, but in general I expected to reach 2-2 somehow and then the Celtics win games five and six with Harden playing progressively worse. Harden sure started off better than I expected, but by the time we reach game six it will be interesting to see if his made field goals exceed his turnovers with the series up for grabs.

At Tuesday, May 02, 2023 11:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep, that's all it really is.

I had the Celtics losing to Milwaukee in the ECF originally so I expected and still expect them to beat Philly too, but they're already making it harder on themselves than it needs to be. Philly is flawed but they're also dangerous, and spotting them a game and home-court advantage is obviously not a great way to start the series.


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