James Harden scored 45 points as the Philadelphia 76ers stunned the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs on Monday before Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets took a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Phoenix Suns.
In a pulsating Eastern Conference duel in Boston, Harden produced a vintage performance — including a pivotal go-ahead three-pointer with 8.4 seconds remaining — to leave the TD Garden in stunned silence as the Sixers snatched a 119-115 game one victory.
The Sixers’ win was achieved without their best player, injured talisman Joel Embiid, who watched from the bench after failing to recover from a knee injury.
“We’re just a resilient team,” Harden said. “Even without Joel, we’ve got the confidence to come here and win games.
“We’ve been doing it all year long, that’s a good one for us.”
Harden’s points haul came from 17-of-30 shooting and included seven three-pointers.
“He was awesome,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “Kept his cool, knew when to attack, knew when to give it up.”
Tyrese Maxey provided offensive support with 26 points while Tobias Harris added 18 and De’Anthony Melton 17.
The Celtics were led by 39 points from Jayson Tatum while Jaylen Brown chipped in with 23 points and Malcolm Brogdon 20.
With Boston exploiting the absence of Embiid to score freely in the paint, the Celtics jumped out to lead by 12 in the second quarter.
But Harden and Maxey’s scoring ensured that the Sixers remained in touch coming down the stretch with only a handful of points separating the two teams in the closing stages.
A loose pass from Brogdon with 32 seconds left on the clock handed Maxey an easy uncontested layup to put Philadelphia 114-113 up, before Tatum hit back with two free throws to give Boston a slender 115-114 advantage.
But with the clock running down, Harden advanced up the court and took his time before nervelessly sinking a sublime three-pointer from 25 feet to give Philadelphia a 117-115 lead with just seconds remaining.
Rivers said Harden’s ice-cool three-pointer at the death was a rebuttal to critics who have long accused the 33-year-old former NBA Most Valuable Player of folding under pressure.
“I thought he had just the perfect mindset tonight,” Rivers said. “I’m so happy for him because it just tells you what he can do on a given night.
“It’s amazing — the guy’s a Hall-of-Famer and all you hear is the other stuff about him. He’s fantastic.”
Game two of the best-of-seven series takes place in Boston on Wednesday.
In Monday’s other playoff game, Denver’s reigning two-time NBA MVP Jokic finished with 39 points as the Nuggets staged a fourth-quarter rally to eclipse the Phoenix Suns 97-87 and take a 2-0 series lead.
Devin Booker finished with 35 points for Phoenix while Kevin Durant added 24, but the Suns were unable to respond as Denver pulled away to outscore the visitors 27-14 in the fourth quarter.
Jokic’s 39-point haul included 26 after half-time as the Nuggets took control of a low-scoring contest that saw Phoenix lead by eight points in the third quarter.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope delivered a crucial cameo for Denver with a flurry of three three-pointers in the fourth quarter, helping to take the game away from Phoenix as the clock ran down.
A gloomy night for Phoenix was compounded by an injury to veteran Chris Paul, who limped to the locker room near the end of the third quarter after appearing to injure his groin.
“Both teams didn’t shoot well, it was a low-scoring game 87-97, it was a tough, rough game—but we won the game and that’s the most important thing,” Jokic said.
The victory came as Jokic prepares to discover on Tuesday whether he has won the NBA’s regular season MVP award for a third straight year.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Jokic had delivered an MVP-caliber performance to drag Denver over the line.
“Nikola’s an MVP for a reason. He can take over a game. He can beat you in a lot of ways. I love an aggressive Nikola Jokic,” Malone said.
The Denver coach said Jokic however was only focused on ending the Nuggets’ wait for a first NBA Championship.
“I know what motivates Nikola Jokic, myself, and the rest of the guys in that locker room – it’s not the MVP,” Malone said.
“If he wins it, we’ll be celebrating and very happy for him because it’s a huge accomplishment, three years in a row.
“And if he doesn’t win it I’m going to give him a hug because he’s still the MVP in my eyes.”
The series now heads back to Arizona for game three on Friday.
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