PHILADELPHIA – The Wells Fargo Center was full of energy on Saturday night as the Philadelphia 76ers got ready to play in the first game of the first round playoff against the Toronto Raptors.
The Sixers have stellar power that most other teams should surpass, but their stars have struggled in the playoffs. Joel Embiid, who led the NBA in regular season game points, has never made it past the second round of the playoffs. James Harden, who won the most valuable player in the league in 2017-18, has not made it past the conference finals since reaching the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.
Did fans of the building dare to expect this team to win the first franchise championship since 1983?
Can Harden and Embiid get together fast enough, even though they have only played 21 games in the regular season?
The 76ers beat the Raptors 131-111, avoiding the mistakes they had previously tied against Toronto. The Raptors came out. They made only one condition in the first 44 minutes of the match. Game 1 offered hope.
But hope has its limits. If this team wants to prove that it can succeed in places where past versions have failed, the 76ers will have to build on Saturday night’s performance. The pressure on Embiid and Harden did not calm down with the victory.
“It’s the only match,” Embiid said repeatedly at a post-match press conference.
Embiid scored 19 points and 15 rebounds. Harden scored 22 points and had 14 assists. But the real star for 76 was Tyrese Maxey, who scored 38 points, making 14 of his 21 shot attempts.
At the end of the third quarter, Harden saw Maxeyk Raptors win from the court and he caught the ball with both hands on a perfectly positioned bounce pass to Maxey, the length of the court went to almost three quarters. Maxey caught and scored with a reverse shot.
That move provided an example of the value the 21-year-old guardian has for Philadelphia.
“He’s like the perfect player,” Harden said before praising his ability to take advantage of the times when Maxey himself and Embiid drew multiple defenders.
Maxey couldn’t help but smile as she looked at him one last time. He sat on the bench, fixed on the lead camera, while the crowd shouted his name over and over again. After the match, however, he did not enjoy the flattery.
“The only thing I can remember is winning us over,” Maxey said. “It simply came to our notice then. Now this is in my rearview mirror. “
Crowds erupted in a mixture of joy and relief – the Philadelphia performance eased the tension in the building. But there was a lot of awareness that winning Game 1 didn’t mean you would win the series.
Harden knows what it’s like to lose a series after winning the first game. In fact, it has happened in the last two seasons. Last year, his Nets won Game 1 of a second-round series against Milwaukee before losing the series in seven games. Two years ago, his Rockets won Game 1 of the second round before losing the next four games to the Lakers.
Whether fair or not, this post-season will be the start of a referendum on the team that has gathered in Philadelphia.
The Sixers replaced Ben Simmons, who was the first major choice in the 2016 draft, with Harden in February.
As soon as the trade was over, the 76ers began to beat their opponents. They won the first game played by Harden, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves by 31 points. Harden scored 27, and when he was in the game, the 76ers outscored the Timberwolves.
Philadelphia’s hiccups since arriving in Harden, however, have been worrisome. The Sixers lost by 29 points to the Nets in their first team game since the trade. They lost twice against the Raptors in the last month of the season.
Simmons has yet to play for the Nets, but it could be argued that he is better in the playoffs for a place ahead of the Nets in Philadelphia, despite finishing seventh in the East due to the transcendent talents of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
Harden was not particularly effective on Saturday against the Raptors. He shot 6 of 17 and only made 2 of 10. He was influential in helping his teammates.
“I don’t think we’ve really seen what he can do,” Embiid said. “But he was comfortable tonight: he made the right plays, found the boys, went to the line a couple of times even though they didn’t call him all his fouls. But it was good to see him attack. “
Coach Doc Rivers admitted Harden was comfortable with the attack.
“You can tell. You could see it there, ”Rivers said. “He called the plays himself.”
Rivers blamed the decision, in part, for focusing on the team’s decision to simplify the book and make it run well.
Maxey’s contributions were also crucial to their plan. He sat on the podium next to Harden on Saturday night and showed a mischievous smile as Harden spoke about his post-season experiences.
“I’ve been in the playoffs for 13 years,” Harden said.
Maxey interjected to call him an old man.
“I’m sorry,” Maxey said, as if he were a child caught misbehaving, before he looked away and smiled at Harden again.
“I wanted to play well,” Harden said. “I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing individually, to do whatever it took to win our team. Tonight, I feel like I’ve had a good game individually, but you’ve got a great team for that. “
The 76ers got what they needed for Game 1, but there is no guarantee that the formula itself will be enough as the playoffs progress, nor as this series progresses to Game 2 on Monday.