The first playoff series of Tyrese Maxey’s NBA career couldn’t have gone much better. After only appearing for 6 minutes and 41 seconds in Game 1 against the Washington Wizards, Maxey’s minutes increased through the series, with him playing 21:34 then 26:28 in the final two games, respectively. As the Philadelphia 76ers were forced to downsize in Joel Embiid’s absence following his small meniscus tear, Maxey made the most of his extra opportunities.
Over the last four games of the series in 18.2 minutes a night, Maxey averaged 10.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2 assists to 0.5 turnovers, 0.5 steals and 1.3 blocks, shooting 48.6 percent overall and 4-of-7 from three-point range. After tallying 15 points in Game 4, Maxey gave the Sixers another boost to help close the series. With no Embiid in Game 5, the Sixers entrusted Maxey with a fair amount of ball-handling responsibility to lead the offense for stretches. He didn’t have his best shooting game (going 6-of-14), but finished with 13 points, remained in control as a passer, handled his pick-and-rolls well, and displayed his craftiness off the dribble with pull-up jumpers and bursts to the rim.
Maxey’s performance, and the trust the Sixers’ coaching staff had in him to take on a larger role, speaks volumes about his growth over the last couple of months (which I looked at in more detail a few weeks ago here). He’s been outplaying Shake Milton as of late, and has earned opportunities to play more minutes and overtake his older teammate in the rotation (Milton only played 7 minutes in Game 4 and 6:46 in Game 5).
“I think he’s a hell of a player,” Doc Rivers said after Game 5 when talking about Maxey. “I think he has found himself. He’s figured out now how to play, how we need him to play, what makes not only him a good player but making everybody good on the floor when he’s on the floor.”
The rookie has continued to make an impact with the jolt of energy, pace and driving he provides, adding a new dynamic to the Sixers’ bench. And over the last couple of months, Maxey has improved the way he changes pace and catches defenders off guard with shifty stop-and-start drives. In addition to embracing contact more often, he’s used this as a tool to significantly increase his shots at the rim rather than relying too much on his floater, and showed it again in Game 5. This shift in Maxey’s shot profile was key to him taking his true shooting percentage from 50.4 before the All-Star break to 56.3 afterwards.
Maxey’s growing poise has shown up in various areas. Sharper passing, pick-and-roll play, and awareness of where and when to find teammates is one of the many improvements he’s made in recent weeks. Plus, how rarely he turns the ball over is particularly impressive for a rookie guard who’s getting plenty of touches. In his 80 minutes in round one, Maxey had 8 assists and only turned the ball over twice. It’s a trend that carried over from late in the regular season, when he had 37 assists to just 8 turnovers in the final 10 games.
“That’s kind of just been Tyrese all season,” Matisse Thybulle said after Game 5 when talking about how Maxey stepped up in a high-stakes situation. “Every time the team’s needed him he’s stepped up... He’s a great player for his age and he’s gonna just get even better. He’s gotten significantly better just over the season, and every time they call on him, he shows up and delivers.”
At the other end of the floor, Maxey’s defense is coming along as well. While he’s shown encouraging flashes throughout his rookie season of how he can apply pressure at the point of attack with his quickness, solid strength, and high motor, he’s honed his off-ball positioning and activity, understanding of the Sixers’ schemes, and ability to navigate screens. From bothering Russell Westbrook on the ball at times, to digging as a helper on drives, to making a few timely help rotations, Maxey displayed more positives against Washington, too.
“I’ll tell you what, I think everybody would love his offense,” Rivers said after Game 5. “Where I’m prideful, he was our worst defender and it wasn’t close. The numbers said that, too. The last month, he’s turned the corner defensively. He makes so many little plays defensively — rebounds, digs, getting steals. So for me — obviously the offensive energy was there, the speed was there — but watching him grow defensively for this team has been absolutely amazing.”
Maxey himself credits a lot of his defensive growth to the film work he’s put it, which has included a lot of time studying Thybulle’s film. Thybulle also talks with Maxey a lot at the end of the bench during games, and they discuss defense and where Maxey can make some of Thybulle’s signature plays (such as his rearview blocks).
“It was kind of hard coming in, no training camp — well, I only played like two days of training camp — so I had to learn everything on the fly,” Maxey explained after Game 5. “Once I got time to learn everything, learn the system, learn the defensive coverages, watch a lot of film on different guys and just how to be solid on defense, that really helped me.”
Maxey says that a better understanding of personnel and knowing the right spots to be in on the floor are two of the main improvements he’s made, and he asks frequent questions to ensure he’s learning as many defensive details as he can.
“I’m still asking a lot of questions,” Maxey added. “I ask Danny Green, I ask George Hill, everybody. I ask coach [Dan] Burke all the time, just to make sure where is the right spot to be in, when to tag and when not to tag, and different things like that. So I’m still learning and trying to get one percent better every single day.”
The following sequence from Game 4 captures two parts of Maxey’s development: his increased comfort finding space and shooting from three, and stronger defense. During the fourth quarter, as he came up with several big plays for the Sixers in a close game, he relocated slightly around the arc to create an easier passing window for Tobias Harris to find him for three, then blocked Westbrook’s drive and forced a turnover:
Maxey’s in-season growth in all areas as a 20-year-old rookie is highly impressive. With his work ethic (he’s the hardest worker on the team, according to Doc Rivers), eagerness to learn, and chance to pick up more playoff minutes as the Sixers continue (for now) without Embiid, Maxey can keep building on his strong play.
He’s making a positive impact, and with the importance of the creativity he provides off the dribble, he deserves to stay in the rotation in round two against Atlanta.