PHILADELPHIA – There was a nervous breakdown throughout the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night as the Philadelphia 76ers prepared to play the first game of their first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.
The Sixers have stellar power that should overwhelm most other teams, but their stars have had problems in the playoffs before. Joel Embiid, who led the NBA in points per game during the regular season, has never made it past the second round of the playoffs. James Harden, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2017-18, has not made it past the conference finals since reaching the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.
Did building fans dare to expect this team to win the first franchise championship since 1983?
Could Harden and Embiid get together fast enough, despite having only played 21 regular season games together?
The 76ers defeated the Raptors, 131-111, avoiding the reefs that had previously trapped them against Toronto. They overtook the Raptors. They only committed a balance in the first 44 minutes of the match. Match 1 offered hope.
But hope has its limits. If they want to prove that this group can succeed where previous versions failed, the 76ers have to build the performance on Saturday night. The pressure on Embiid and Harden did not dissipate with the victory.
“It’s just a party,” Embiid said repeatedly during his post-match press conference.
Embiid scored 19 points and caught 15 rebounds. Harden scored 22 points and made 14 assists. But the real star of the 76ers game was Tyrese Maxey, who scored 38 points, making 14 of his 21 shooting attempts.
At the end of the third quarter, Harden saw Maxey hit the Raptors on the court and grabbed the ball with both hands to throw Maxey a perfectly placed rebound that went almost three-quarters of the way down the court. Maxey grabbed him and scored with a reverse tray.
That move provided an example of the value of the 21-year-old guard for Philadelphia.
“He’s like the perfect player,” Harden said before praising Maxey’s ability to take advantage of the moments when he and Embiid attracted several defenders.
Maxey couldn’t help but smile as he looked for the last time. He sat on the bench with the marker camera fixed on him as people sang his name over and over again. After the match, however, he did not enjoy the flattery.
“The only thing I will remember is that we won,” Maxey said. “That’s all that matters right now. Now that’s in my rearview mirror.”
The crowd erupted in what seemed like a mixture of joy and relief: Philadelphia’s performance eased the tension in the building. But there was 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 his first game. In fact, the last two seasons have passed. Last year, his Nets won the first game of a second-round series against Milwaukee before losing the series in seven games. Two years ago, his Rockets won the first game of a second-round series against the Lakers before losing the next four games.
Right or wrong, this postseason will be the start of a referendum on the team that has met in Philadelphia.
The Sixers replaced Ben Simmons, who was the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, with Harden in a change in February.
Immediately after the exchange, the 76ers began to beat their opponents. They won the first game Harden played with them, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves by 31 points. Harden scored 27, and when he was in the game, the 76ers outscored the Timberwolves.
The Philadelphia hiccup since Harden’s arrival, however, has been worrisome. The Sixers lost to the Nets by 29 points in the first game between teams since the exchange. They lost twice to the Raptors in the last month of the season.
Simmons has yet to play in the Nets, but it could be argued that the Nets are better prepared to make a playoff run in the playoffs than Philadelphia, despite being the seventh seed in the East, by Kyrie Irving and the transcendent talent of Kevin Durant .
Harden was not particularly effective against the Raptors on Saturday. He made 6 of 17 shots and only 2 of 10 of 2. He had his impact 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, he found boys, he went to the line a couple of times, even though they didn’t ask for all his faults. But it was good to see him aggressive. “
Coach Doc Rivers agreed that Harden looked comfortable in the attack.
“You could say that. You could see it out there,” Rivers said. “He himself called plays.”
Rivers attributed this in part to his decision to simplify the team’s playbook and focus on the few plays he knew could work well.
Maxey’s contributions were also critical to his plan. He sat on the podium next to Harden on Saturday night and revealed a mischievous smile as Harden talked about his postseason experiences.
“I’ve been in the playoffs for 13 years,” Harden said.
Maxey intervened to call him old.
“I’m sorry,” Maxey said, as if he were a misbehaving child, before looking at another and smiling at Harden, 32.
“I just wanted to play well,” Harden said. “I wanted to make sure individually that I’m doing the right thing, to do whatever it takes for our team to win. Tonight I think I’ve had a good game individually, 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 progress, or even when that series goes into Game 2 on Monday.