The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics began their second-round matchup in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, playing each other in the postseason for the third time in six years. Without Joel Embiid, the Sixers stole Game 1 by a score of 119-115.

Let’s break down Game 1 between the Sixers and Celtics.

Sixers player notes:

James Harden: 45 points, 1 rebound, 6 assists, 17-30 FG shooting

Harden simply had to be at his best in order for the Sixers to have a shot against the Celtics with no Embiid. He stepped up with a great scoring outing, using the space Boston gave him instead of trying to make his own and tickling the twine on almost every shot he took.

Taking on much more of the scoring responsibility took away from his playmaking but it was a tweak that worked for him and the team. Harden tied his playoff career-high and had 15 points in the fourth quarter. Just an incredible performance.

Tyrese Maxey: 26 points, 1 rebound, 2 assists, 4 steals, 10-24 FG shooting

Maxey stayed aggressive when he had a lane to the bucket and was feisty at the point of attack on defense. He was in the right place at the right time a few times on defense, coming up with a good amount of steals, but also got into foul trouble late in the game. He also started settling for off-balance jumpers a bit too often.

De’Anthony Melton: 17 points, 1 rebound, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 6-10 FG shooting

Melton’s shooting was huge for the Sixers, as he made his first five looks from downtown. That unreal shooting kept the Sixers within striking distance and he still kept the ball moving when he needed to. The fact that he only played 10 minutes in the second half was surprising, to say the least.

Tobias Harris: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 8-16 FG shooting

Just like he did in Game 4 of the last series, Harris successfully got his own offense in the mid-range and post, which helped make up for an inefficient night from downtown. His defense shaped up as the game went on after getting beaten badly in the opening frame.

Celtics player notes:

Jayson Tatum: 39 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 14-25 FG shooting

Tatum busted the Sixers’ defense on and off the ball and was lights out from deep. The Celtics superstar struggled against the Sixers for most of the season but took full advantage of the Embiid-less defense with a monster scoring night.

Jaylen Brown: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 8-10 FG shooting

Brown got off to a wicked start, scoring 14 points in the first quarter on 6-7 shooting, but he cooled off big time after that. He turned the ball over a bunch and his defense was often shoddy as the Celtics had him guard up top.

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Malcolm Brogdon: 20 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 9-16 FG shooting

The Sixth Man of the Year did his thing against a porous perimeter defense. He got into the paint and converted shots with little issue. His production was consistent throughout his minutes.

Game recap:

1st half

The worst-case scenario happened to the Sixers in Game 1: Embiid sat out. Paul Reed remained in the starting lineup. P.J. Tucker started out on Tatum while Harris took Brown while Smart guarded Harden while White took Maxey. With the Celtics playing drop coverage, Harden took advantage of the open space in the mid-range to make his first three shots of the game. He then drilled a pair of pull-up threes and Reed threw a fast-break lob to Harris to fuel a strong offensive start for Philly.

Not to be outdone too much, Brown made his first four shots to contribute 10 points and two assists in the first seven minutes. He got right to the hoop and hit his own pair of threes while Boston made nine of its first 10 shots. The Celtics got to the rim easily with drives and timely cuts to the paint. The Sixers responded with the Tucker-at-center look, a move that signaled Rivers wanted to just go blow for blow on offense rather than try to get stops. Bringing in Georges Niang shortly thereafter confirmed that approach. At least he made his first attempt from downtown and played solid defense on a Brown isolation.

The Sixers went to a zone defense to start the second quarter and got buckets from Maxey, Harris and Melton to get the deficit down to one. Tatum started to take over things for Boston, joining the fun of scoring in the paint and hitting a pull-up trey in Harris’ face. He used the Sixers’ aggressive off-ball defense against them, deking out his defender and getting open for the cut or the deep shot. A deep heat-check gave him 18 points in the second quarter and a 12-point lead.

A 10-0 Philly run got them back into it as Reed came through with some composed finishes at the cup and Melton hit yet another three. Brown shot the first free throws of the entire game with 30 seconds left in the first half, hitting both. At the half, the Sixers trailed 66-63.

2nd half

Tucker’s hustle helped the Sixers gain extra possessions to start the half but they weren’t able to do a whole lot with them. Maxey hit a three, scored on a contested scoop layup and assisted Reed on an open dunk to tie the game. Harden got into the paint and took the lead with a push shot.

Rivers made a defensive adjustment to put Reed on Smart and Harden on Horford, keeping Reed closer to the rim. The Celtics played with their mea…their food by coming up empty on offense. Meanwhile, Harden shot the Sixers’ first free throws of the game with just under six minutes left in the third quarter. He went mismatch hunting but came up empty as the Sixers and Celtics both went scoreless for several minutes. Brogdon, the only reliable offensive creator aside from Tatum and Brown, scored a pair of buckets to retake the lead. The scoreboard read 87 on both sides heading into the fourth.

The Sixers’ offense struggled without Harden as Maxey misfired on a pair of open looks, allowing the Celtics to take a four-point lead in the final frame. The Beard drew a foul on Brogdon on his first fourth-quarter possession and kept going at him. He burst right past Brown for a layup to tie the game back up and then buried a step-back three (perhaps pushing off of Smart a bit) to retake the lead. He just would not let the Sixers out of it.

With five minutes left, Rivers put Melton back in and took Maxey out. Harris tied it up off of a gorgeous feed from Harden. Maxey drove into the paint and scored through contact. One ref called a charge, one called a block, the play was reviewed and the charge was upheld. Horford bumped the Boston lead back up with a second-chance layup. Reed hit free throws to make it a one-point game. Maxey got the lead after an errant pass ended up in his hands and he scored with no one around him.

Tatum was fouled on the following possession and made both of his free throws. Harden sized up Horford and hit a triple, putting the Sixers up two. Reed came up with the loose ball on the next possession and hit his foul shots. Sixers steal Game 1.

Random thoughts:

  • Harden should have gotten way more free throws in this one. The refs missed numerous instances of Boston defenders taking away his landing space on jumpers.
  • Kevin Harlan’s “Does he know? Does he know?” call on that Harris layup was outstanding.

Game 2 will be in Boston on Wednesday.