3 observations after Sixers lose in Boston despite Harden's huge night


BOSTON — James Harden's huge individual performance was not enough for the Sixers to beat the defending Eastern Conference champions on the road in their season opener. 

The 2022-23 Sixers lost their first game Tuesday night at TD Garden by a 126-117 score despite Harden's 35 points on 9-for-14 shooting, eight assists and eight rebounds. 

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were tremendous, too. Both posted 35 points. 

Joel Embiid had 26 points, Tyrese Maxey 21. 

Boston’s Robert Williams III and Danilo Gallinari were both sidelined after undergoing offseason knee surgeries. 

The Sixers’ home opener is Thursday night against the Bucks. Here are observations on their loss to Boston: 

The inevitable Boston blitz 

The Celtics’ first of many double teams on Embiid was as effective as possible. Brown swooped in as Embiid faded away and blocked his jumper. 

The first few minutes were frustrating for Embiid, who missed a three-pointer after a pick-and-pop with Harden and turned the ball over trying to lead a fast break. He got on the scoreboard by fighting for an offensive rebound and drawing a foul on Al Horford, although he only split the free throws. 

Meanwhile, Tatum was locked in immediately, scoring seven fast points and rejecting a Maxey layup. Boston went up 9-2. 

Ultimately, Horford's second foul helped halt Boston's surge. Upon review, the officials assessed Horford a Flagrant 1, ruling he didn't give Harden space to land on a three-point attempt. 

Noah Vonleh entered and fouled Embiid on his very first possession. On his second, Embiid gladly accepted a hard double and kicked the ball out for a Tobias Harris three-pointer that capped a 9-0 Sixers run. Harris was solid on both ends of the floor amid the chaos, posting seven of the Sixers’ first 11 points. 

Soon after, the Sixers were the team miffed at the officiating when Embiid was whistled for his second foul on a Marcus Smart drive. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers kept Embiid in for another two minutes or so, however, and the team stayed stable despite its superstar center finishing the season’s first quarter with a single point. In fact, the Sixers led by five after the opening frame. 

Heck of a Harden half

The Sixers played a lineup with Harden alongside bench players De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr., Georges Niang and Montrezl Harrell in the latter stages of the first.

The game occasionally turned sloppy during that stretch and Boston beat the Sixers for several valuable offensive rebounds. Still, Harden-centric offense was excellent for the Sixers. Wary of his step-back jumper, the Celtics kept committing costly fouls behind the arc. If a catch-and-shoot opportunity wasn’t available, every member of the Sixers’ second unit was glad to feed Harden the ball. 

Rivers said before the game the Sixers still expect to experiment plenty with various lineups early in the season.

“Oh, a lot,” he said. “We will. We’re still not our finished product yet — at least I hope not, let me put it that way. We have lineups that we haven’t used much, that we haven’t seen, that may end up being one of our better lineups. … We’ll keep tinkering. We have a lot of players that can play and all of them will not play, so we have to figure out what’s the right combination.”

When Harden sat early in the second quarter, the Sixers focused on getting Embiid touches at the nail against Grant Williams. Embiid knocked down a jumper over Williams and also drew his second and third fouls in quick succession. 

The downside of the Sixers’ approach was that their offense sometimes became rather stationary when the team fixated on letting Embiid attack interior defenders. Momentum kept flipping and Brown’s three-pointer gave the Celtics a 38-35 lead. 

The Sixers’ offense didn’t stay in a lull for long, though. Maxey scored six key points over the next couple of minutes and Harris sunk two threes.

Harden conducted almost everything. His efficiency (22 first-half points on nine field-goal attempts) was lifted by Boston’s early overzealousness, but the 33-year-old’s success in transition was encouraging. He drew Horford on a switch in the second quarter before the Celtics’ defense could settle, pulled the ball out, and hit a step-back triple. 

After an incredibly difficult fadeaway three that tied the game at 61-all, Harden dished the ball to a rolling Harrell in transition for an easy dunk. Maxey is far younger and speedier, but Harden can also be quite dangerous when he’s seizing chances to play fast. 

Whistles a big part of the night 

Embiid was called for his third foul late in the second quarter, while Maxey got his fourth early in the third. 

The game stopped just 19 seconds into the second half as officials reviewed a dust-up involving Embiid, Brown and Smart. After a lengthy delay, Smart picked up both a personal foul and a technical foul. 

Boston was the better, more aggressive team when the action resumed. Embiid misfired on two threes, and Tatum and Brown kept pouring in points. The Sixers made defensive miscues throughout the night, but it's also significant that Tatum is world-class at draining difficult shots. 

On a positive note, the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll was promising on most possessions. Harden often came off screens hard, allowing him to put his defender behind the play and toy with pace and body position. 

The Celtics grabbed a double-digit advantage largely because they pounced on fast-break chances. Boston registered 24 of the game’s 26 fast-break points. After an errant Harden pass that the 10-time All-Star felt was caused by a foul, Tatum threw down a dunk. When Embiid didn’t receive a foul call he expected, the Celtics charged down the floor and eventually stretched their lead to nine on a Smart three. 

Maxey was stellar early in the fourth quarter, scoring at all three levels, but the Sixers simply could not get sufficient stops. And, while the team's depth is certainly improved from last season, the Celtics' second unit outscored the Sixers' by a 34-11 margin. Malcolm Brogdon had 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting in his Boston debut. 

Interim Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla won his first coach's challenge with 4:11 left in the game. The officials overturned a Horford foul on Embiid that aggravated Boston to the point that Tatum was assessed a technical.

That moment essentially ended any potential comeback hopes for the Sixers, who won't see Boston again until Feb. 8. It sure looks like that will be another major challenge.

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