PHILADELPHIA – The Wells Fargo Center had nervous energy on Saturday night as the Philadelphia 76ers prepared for Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.
The Sixers have a stellar strength that should beat most other teams, but previously their stars had problems in the playoffs. Joel Embide, who led the NBA in points for regular season play, never made it to the second round of the playoffs. James Harden, who won the Most Valuable Player of the League Award in 2017-18, has not made it to the conference finals since reaching the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.
Did the fans in the building dare to hope that this team would be able to win the first franchise championship since 1983?
Were Harden and Embid able to get together quickly enough, even though they only played 21 regular season games together?
The 76ers defeated the Raptors 131-111, avoiding traps that had previously been trapped against Toronto. They were ahead of the Raptors. In the first 44 minutes of the game, they made only one turn. Game 1 gave hope.
But hope has limits. If they want to prove that this band can succeed where past versions have failed, the 76ers must build a performance on Saturday night. The pressure on Embid and Harden did not diminish with the victory.
“It’s just one game,” Embid said many times during his post-game press conference.
Embid scored 19 points and made 15 rebounds. Harden scored 22 points and gave up 14 assists. But the real star of the game for the 76ers was Tyris Maxi, who scored 38 points, making 14 of 21 attempts to strike.
At the end of the third quarter Harden saw Maxi knocking down the Raptors on the court, and grabbed the ball with both hands to throw Maxi a perfectly placed rebound that went almost three-quarters the length of the court. Maxie caught him and killed with reverse breeding.
This play exemplified the 21-year-old guard’s value to Philadelphia.
“He’s like the perfect player,” Harden said before praising Maxi’s ability to take advantage of moments when he and Embid brought in several defenders.
Maxie couldn’t help but smile the last time he went out. He sat on a bench with a camera on the scoreboard while the crowd chanted his name over and over again. However, after the game he did not bask in the funeral.
“The only thing I will remember is our victory,” said Max. “That’s all that matters at the moment. Now it’s in my rearview mirror. “
The crowd erupted in joy and relief as Philadelphia’s performance eased the tension in the building. But there remained a keen awareness that winning Game 1 does not mean you will win the series.
Harden knows what it’s like to lose a series after winning the first game. In fact, it has happened to him in the last two seasons. Last year, his Nets won the 1st game of the second round series against Milwaukee before losing the series in seven games. Two years ago his Rockets won the 1st game of the second round series against the Lakers before losing the next four games.
Fair or not, this postseason will be the start of a referendum on the team that was assembled in Philadelphia.
The Sixers replaced Ben Simmons, who was the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, with Harden in exchange in February.
Immediately after the trade the 76ers began beating their opponents. They won the first game Harden played for them, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves by 31 points. Harden scored 27, and when he was in the game, the 76ers were ahead of the Timberwolves.
Philadelphia’s hiccups after Harden’s arrival, however, were a concern. In the first game between the teams after the exchange, the Sixers lost to the Nets with 29 points. They have twice lost to the Raptors in the final month of the season.
Simmons has not yet played for the Nets, but it can be argued that the Nets are better prepared to reach the playoffs than Philadelphia, despite being the seventh seed in the East, due to Kaira Irving and of Kevin Durant’s transcendent talent.
Harden was not particularly effective against the Raptors on Saturday. He made 6 of 17 shots and only 2 of 10 two-pointers. He made his impact by helping his teammates.
“I don’t think we’ve really seen what he can do,” Embid said. “But today he felt comfortable: he played correctly, found guys, went on the line a couple of times, although not all fouls were announced for him. But it was nice to see him aggressive. “
Coach Doc Rivers agreed that Harden felt comfortable in the attack.
“You could say. You could see it there, “Rivers said.” He called the plays himself. “
Rivers attributed this in part to his decision to simplify the team’s collection of games and focus on a few plays that he knew could work well.
Maxie’s contribution was also crucial to their plan. He was sitting in the stands next to Harden on Saturday night and found a mischievous smile as Harden recounted his post-season experience.
“I’ve been in the playoffs for 13 years,” Harden said.
Max intervened, calling him old.
“I’m sorry,” Maxie said, as if he were a child caught in a misbehavior before averting his eyes and then smiling again at 32-year-old Harden.
“I just wanted to play well,” Harden said. “I wanted to make sure individually that I was doing the right thing, doing what was necessary to win our team. Tonight I feel like I personally had a good game, but that’s why you have a great team. ”
For Game 1 the 76ers got what they needed, but there is no guarantee that the same formula will be enough as the playoffs unfold – or even if the series moves to Game 2 on Monday.