James Harden and Tyrese Maxey struggle as 76ers lose home-court advantage to Celtics

PHILADELPHIA — Every time the Philadelphia 76ers seemed to close in on the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinals on Friday night, the Celtics responded with a big play.

Some of them came on hustle plays, especially on the offensive glass. Some of them came in transition or drive-and-kick play in the half court.

The closest the Sixers got in the second half was two runs midway through the third quarter.

After getting a save, the ball was in the hands of James Harden. After missing all but one of his shots up to this point and letting several more good ones go by, Harden decided to take the lead himself. He watched Joel Embiid at the top of the key and took a disputed 3-pointer that didn’t drop.

The ball ended up in the hands of Al Horford beyond the arc. Horford has tormented the 76ers for the past six years whether he’s been in a Boston or Philadelphia uniform. And he was right with an open look from the top of the sideline, drilling a 3 to give the Celtics some breathing room.

“I have to watch the game, but I’m pretty good at basketball instincts,” Harden said. “I know when to score and I know when to pass. So I’m pretty sure a lot of them were the right game.”

Harden was answering a question about a series of decent looks in the paint that he let slip throughout the game. And on possession after Horford hit the 3-pointer which extended the lead, the ball found Harden after Embiid was doubled at the low post and popped the ball across the field. Harden got a decent shot attempt from mid-range against Jaylen Brown but missed. And on the other end of the transition, Brown finished a 3-point game against Harden.

The Sixers lost to the Celtics 114-102, giving up the home-court advantage Harden helped Boston get because their offense let them down again.

“I thought we did enough if we executed better offensively,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “We have to execute better. We need to trust better. I thought the difference in this game was that Boston had more faith in the past than we did.”

Once Harden and Tyrese Maxey returned to the fold in late December, the Sixers were the best offense in the league until the end of the season. But despite the league’s best 3-point shooting team surrounding the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, the offense was a disappointment in two straight games against a locked-down Celtics defense.

The Sixers’ problems on Friday came inside the arc despite shooting 16 of 37 from deep. Philly was 7 of 24 on non-Embiid shots from 2-pointers, with most of the ineptitude falling on the starting backcourt.

And while he wasn’t the only Sixers player to struggle, Harden’s play seemed to particularly stand out: he was 3 of 14 from the field and 8 of 9 from the line with 11 assists and five turnovers in the first half. Despite their 3-point shooting success, the Sixers weren’t as connected as Boston offensively. Harden’s inability to take advantage of traffic lanes stood out as the game continued.

“I thought there were so many times where we could have taken the lane, come down, made rim plays and made passing plays,” Rivers said. “And we just stopped and didn’t.”

At this point in his career, Harden’s performance can fluctuate wildly from night to night. The Sixers were on the right side of that gap in one game, but decidedly on the wrong side in the next two. And if Harden was going too slow and playing too passively, his running mate had the opposite problem.

Maxey shot 4 of 16 from the field and 3 of 9 from outside the arc. And as tends to be the case when Maxey plays poorly, there were some questionable moves in the transition that led to low percentage drives.

Embiid may have had the above piece in mind when he offered the following quote about Maxey.

“You obviously have to be aggressive, but still pick your spots,” Embiid said. “Robert Williams is pretty good at blocking shots defensively. So you can’t be careless knocking it over.

The Sixers can’t survive another performance like this from the backcourt. Harden and Maxey are the ones who gave the Sixers a split in Boston with their inspired Game 1 performance, but they also gave one in Game 3.

The only silver lining for the Sixers was Embiid, who accepted the MVP trophy before the game. It was a moving scene. At one point, Embiid called for his son, Arthur, then cried after picking him up. He shouted out former teammate Luc Mbah a Moute, which was a big part of why he started playing basketball in Cameroon.

More importantly for the Sixers, Embiid looked less rusty than in Game 2. He finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. Boston sent him more double teams than in the past, and aside from a few second-half possessions where he seemed to lose faith in his teammates, Embiid played well. The Sixers will need this version of Embiid in Game 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, a short turnaround for his sprained LCL.

“Tonight obviously I was more assertive about being more aggressive and running the floor, ducking,” Embiid said. “I still think I didn’t have enough ball, not to score but also to make plays for my teammates. They tended to double up a bit tonight so I thought we could have used that to our advantage.

The closest the Sixers got in the final minutes was four points.

They got the stop they needed. Their half-court defense was good enough to win the game, especially on the initial hit. But on this play, the long rebound was knocked down and the ball again found Horford, who knocked down Dagger 3.

“One of the biggest keys to the game was loose balls, 50/50 balls,” Embiid said. “Every time they kept getting them and they did a 3 and it changed the whole momentum, the whole game.”

After a night in which they lost the run and bustle battles, the Sixers are now playing their season on Sunday afternoon.

(Photo by James Harden: Eric Hartline/USA Today)

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