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Tyrese Maxey’s improved defense deserves recognition

Portland Trail Blazers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Heading into this season for the Sixers, the player most fans were interested to see (apart from the team’s absent, unnamed, non-shooting, reclusive point guard) was Tyrese Maxey, the former Kentucky guard heading into his second year in the pros. With a suddenly vacant starting spot at the one for a team with title aspirations, Maxey became the incumbent starter at point guard after averaging just about 15 minutes per game off the bench last season. And while it’s easy and most sensible to analyze how the guard has performed in a more expanded role on offense — the push and pull between finding his own shot and feeding the hungry mouths of his fellow starters in need of shots — it is on the other end of the court that I’ve been most impressed with the strides taken by Maxey from year-to-year.

Head coach Doc Rivers’ confidence in Maxey’s improved defense was evident immediately. In the second game of the season, the Sixers played the Brooklyn Nets. Heading into the game, many fans’ best guess was that veteran swingman Danny Green would most likely be entrusted with the job of guarding perennial MVP candidate James Harden. To the surprise of many, it was the sophomore point guard who drew the assignment.

You’ll remember, it was only last season that Maxey’s inconsistent defense put him in Rivers’ doghouse midway through his rookie campaign.

The Harden assignment was a sign of things to come for young Maxey. When the Sixers faced off against the vaunted Atlanta Hawks last Saturday, he was tasked with slowing down star guard, grifter, and irritant Trae Young. How did he fare? In 7:37 of game time where Maxey guarded Young, Young went 3 of 9 from the field, 1 of 3 from beyond.

After the game, Rivers complimented Maxey’s work on the Hawks’ star.

“It was good,” Rivers said. “He stayed down and that’s one of the things, he got two [fouls] in the first half but other than that we told him to just pressure him as much as you can, smart pressure. You can’t overpressure Trae because he is so tricky, and keep pursuing, that was the biggest thing he did today on pick-and-rolls. He just kept pursuing on rear contests and I thought that was really good.”

Maxey also shed some light on the work he put in to slow down Young, joking that his plan was to, “Do what Matisse [Thybulle] does on defense. No, just try to make it tough on him. Great player. Extremely hard to guard. Double drags and drags. And just 1-on-1s. So just try to keep coming and keep chasing him and try without fouling.

“Just keep pursuing. [Assistant] Coach Dan Burke has really been on me about not dying on screens. And of course he always brings up ‘Tisse when he talks about defense. And he says ‘watch ‘Tisse.’ Every time ‘Tisse gets hit with a screen, every time he just keeps pursuing. He’s always getting the rearview blocks. So just rearview challenges. I don’t have as long a wingspan as Matisse, so I’m just trying to challenge it, I’m not trying to block it. I’m just trying to get in the way.”

Maxey’s (Brett Brown voice) spirit seems infectious watching the team. By all accounts, he’s a relentless worker who has endeared himself to his teammates in no time. Thybulle doused the guard in praise following the win over the Hawks.

“Honestly, Tyrese’s energy is so contagious,” Thybulle said. “And it’s something that you don’t really talk about and it won’t show up in the box score and most people never really notice it, but you see the kid smiling and laughing every day. And he’s got one of the hardest jobs on the court being the point guard trying to quarterback the whole court, the whole gym. And Doc doesn’t take it easy on him and he’s able to take this challenge and show up day in and day out with one of the best attitudes on the team. And I think that consistency is a really big deal for even guys older than him. Just to be around the energy and have it rub off on everyone on a daily basis.”

After conquering the Hawks, the Sixers faced a fully healthy Portland Trail Blazers team in need of a win on Monday night. Philly was behind the 8-ball from the start: short both Tobias Harris (COVID-19) and Joel Embiid (rest). Starting small forward Danny Green played only 19 minutes in the game before exiting with a strained hamstring. The Sixers went on to win anyway, thanks in large part to Maxey’s offense (10 points, 7 assists) and stellar defense on Blazers star guard Damian Lillard.

In the 7:16 of game time that Maxey guarded Lillard, Lillard shot 3 of 8 from the field and 1 of 3 from beyond. Maxey’s instincts and patience seem to be improving with each game. Combined with his relentless motor and will to improve — it’s no wonder he’s becoming a very good defender at such a young age.

“He’s held up,” Rivers said of Maxey after the win over Portland. “It’s tough. Every night at that position, you’ve got to guard somebody. And we’re not shying away from it. We’re just putting him on guys and overall, I think he’s doing a sensational job. He’s up pressuring the ball. He gets over picks so much better than he did last year. He hears the coverages better as well. I think he’s doing fine.”

Finally, a tiny sample, but a resonant example nonetheless: on Wednesday, in the hotly-contested battle between the Sixers and the visiting Chicago Bulls, DeMar DeRozan was having his way with Furkan Korkmaz, Georges Niang and the like. Thybulle had been occupied all game with guarding Chicago star Zach LaVine. But DeRozan’s outburst had single-handedly kept Chicago in the game and had them on the verge of overcoming the deficit they’d faced all night. Rivers then decided he had no choice but to deploy Thybulle on DeRozan. So which Sixer, then, was prescribed with the unenviable task of guarding LaVine, one of the league’s most nuclear scorers? Who but WB Mason Tyrese Maxey? And just as he’s done in each game in this young season, Maxey held his own, forcing misses on all three shot attempts when matched up on LaVine.

Immense credit is due to Tyrese Maxey, who clearly saw the opportunity at his feet heading into this pivotal season and has seized it with all his might — on both sides of the court.

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