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James Harden scores 45 points to lift Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers past Boston Celtics in Game 1

<i>Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters</i><br/>The Sixers stepped up in MVP candidate Embiid's absence. Injured Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) watches the game against the Boston Celtics
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
The Sixers stepped up in MVP candidate Embiid's absence. Injured Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) watches the game against the Boston Celtics

By Thomas Schlachter, CNN

Expectations were low for the Philadelphia 76ers without MVP candidate Joel Embiid but, led by James Harden, the Sixers secured a huge 119-115 win against the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal clash.

There have always been question marks surrounding Harden’s performances in the playoffs. Critics have suggested the 10-time All-Star doesn’t produce when it really matters, but in this vital game, Harden delivered with a vintage performance.

On the night of the Met Gala, the guard made a stunning fashion statement off the court — and just had to show up on the hardwood to match his effort off it. Harden did just this and dropped 45 points on 17-of-30 shooting, as well draining seven shots from deep at a rate of 50% in a performance reminiscent of his MVP days with the Houston Rockets.

Buoyed by the home crowd support at TD Garden, the Celtics raced off to a strong start. Jaylen Brown scored 14 first-quarter points and Boston took a 38-31 lead after the opening quarter.

Sixers fans could have been forgiven for thinking the worst at this point of the game without the NBA’s back-to-back scoring champion, but this Philadelphia team is made of sterner stuff than past iterations.

Quarter by quarter, Doc Rivers’ team scraped back the Celtics’ lead and the scores were level at 87-87 heading into the final 12 minutes.

Both teams traded buckets in the decisive quarter with neither side allowing their counterpart to gain any significant advantage, but thanks to a pair of Jayson Tatum free throws, the Celtics took a one-point advantage with 26 seconds left on the clock.

The Sixers then worked the ball to “The Beard,” and Harden sought out a mismatch on the Celtics’ Al Horford.

The 33-year-old’s teammates fled the scene and allowed Harden to isolate Horford for a 1-on-1 at the top of the key. The iso king patiently worked on the Celtics center before draining a trademark step-back three to give the Sixers the lead in the clutch — ultimately winning the game for his side in the process.

Speaking to reporters post-game, Harden touched on his attitude heading into the match-up.

“We didn’t come into the game expecting to lose. We came in here to win,” Harden explained. “Whether [Embiid] comes back or not, we’re going to be ready to go.”

It wasn’t just Harden who delivered for the Sixers in Embiid’s absence with Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and De’Anthony Melton also stepping up when needed with 26, 18 and 17 points respectively.

Speaking after the game, Sixers head coach Rivers spoke on the group effort from his squad.

“That’s the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team. We have a bunch of street fighters,” Rivers said. “If we could get to the fourth quarter, we were going to win the game. That’s how we felt.”

Elsewhere, the Denver Nuggets took a 2-0 series lead against the Phoenix Suns to take control of their Western Conference semifinal.

In a relatively low-scoring affair, reigning back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic tallied 39 points, 16 rebounds and five assists as the Nuggets sealed a 97-87 win.

The Suns will be concerned with the health of point guard Chris Paul, who had to leave the game early, as they look to mount a comeback on their home court.

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