PHILADELPHIA — After James Harden had two worst consecutive shooting performances of his entire career in Games 2 and 3 of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers decided to remind his star guard who he’s targeting in game 4.
“I sent him a gospel song,” Rivers later said, laughing. “The caption is, ‘You Know My Name?'”
Harden explained everything later.
“I’m on my way to the game and I got a text from Doc,” Harden said, laughing. “It’s a gospel song, and I’m like, ‘Okay, whatever.’ So I just tell my homies, ‘Let’s play the song.’ It’s a seven minute song, but I play the whole song.
“I was like, ‘Okay, there has to be some kind of good juju in this song, or whatever it feels like, I want to feel that way.’ And I think it worked.”
It definitely did. Finishing with a spectacular line, Harden had 42 points on 16-for-23 shooting, including 6-for-9s from 3-point range, along with eight rebounds, nine assists, four steals, a block and just one turnover 47 minutes. And he hit the deciding shot in the final seconds of the rule before burying a 3-point corner kick with 19 seconds left to lead Philadelphia to a stunning 116-115 overtime win at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday.
The Eastern Conference showdown now returns to Boston Tuesday for Game 5, tied at two games apiece — and that’s because Harden rediscovered the magic he had in Game 1 when he added 45 points to Philadelphia without Joel to lead Embiid to a victory . Then, in Games 2 and 3, he shot a combined 5 of 28 from the field — his worst two-game shooting performance of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
On Sunday there were no such problems.
“He has to do that every night,” said Embiid, who finished in just his third return game after spraining his right knee with 34 points, 14 rebounds and four assists in 46 minutes. “Think of nothing.
“It’s not about taking a lot of shots. It’s all about being aggressive, attacking the fringes, finding guys and he was fantastic tonight.”
Philadelphia needed Harden as Embiid in particular seemed to run out of fuel in the closing minutes of the game. Embiid had his shot blocked three times in the final minutes of the fourth quarter by longtime nemesis Al Horford – prompting PJ Tucker to give the newly minted MVP a fiery pep talk on the court to try to pump him up, which Embiid later admitted he didn’t play well.
“I’m on my way to the game and I get a text message from Doc. It’s a gospel song and I’m like, ‘All right, whatever.’ So I just tell my homies, ‘Let’s play the song.’ It’s a seven minute song, but I played the whole song. I was like, ‘Okay, there has to be some kind of good juju in this song, or whatever it feels like, I want to feel that way.’ And I think it worked.”
“No one can guard Joel individually,” Tucker said. “No way. I’m sorry. It’s not disrespect [Horford] or anyone else. But I’ve guarded him for many years, and when he’s aggressive and assertive, that’s impossible. And I haven’t seen him for two or three games in a row. And we can’t have it. We can’t have it. Not with the season at stake. We can’t have it.”
Luckily for the 76ers, Harden turned the clock back to his own MVP days for the second time in a week. Harden buried a runner to tie Game 4 with 15 seconds left in regulation, only for Marcus Smart to miss a potential winning 3 on the buzzer. Then, in overtime, Harden’s go-ahead 3 came from a superbly crafted out-of-timeout play by Rivers that paired Embiid with Jayson Tatum on the inside, prompting Jaylen Brown to respond with a double-team that Harden wide left open in the corner
“Just a bad read,” Brown said of his decision to double Embiid in the low, leaving Harden open to the winner. “That’s it. A mistimed gamble. Big shot by James Harden, but that’s my fault. I take full responsibility. Just a bad read.”
Sunday’s game winner coupled with his 3 wins in the dwindling seconds of Game 1 are two of Harden’s three career successful field goals with less than 30 seconds remaining in a playoff game.
According to ESPN Stats & Info data, Harden had entered that series 1-for-10 in those moments. He’s now 2-for-2 in this series.
“I just want to win,” Harden said. “Whatever the outcome, I just want to win.
“Honestly, it was all or nothing for us today. … We found a way to win and that’s all that matters in the postseason.”
And while Harden was right about the stakes in the series Philadelphia had lost – particularly with Boston returning home for Game 5 on Tuesday as well as a potential Game 7 – it certainly looked like things were getting in go that direction. After the 76ers led by as much as 16 points, Boston took a five-point lead over Malcolm Brogdon’s 3-pointer with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
But the 76ers found a way to survive.
“Our goal is to go to Boston and win,” Embiid said. “I’ll be better. We just have to go out there and find a win and come back 3-2.”