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Signs of growth in the Joel Embiid-Tyrese Maxey partnership

The postgame press conference pals are learning to coexist

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In terms of on-court conversations surrounding the Philadelphia 76ers this season, one of the preeminent topics has been the difficulties in maximizing the offensive output from both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey when they share the court. While it’s perhaps unfair to put so much focus on a 21-year-old like Maxey who only averaged 15.3 minutes per game last season as a rookie, it’s perfectly understandable why people are desperate for the pair to excel together. Embiid remains the biggest reason one might still consider the franchise to be in a good position despite all of its missteps in recent years, while Maxey is the foremost reason this particular season has not been one of total stagnation. Having those two playing at their current peaks together and synergistically is crucial if this campaign has any hope of being a memorable one.

Fortunately, Thursday night’s win over the Nets was our best example to date that the team’s biggest star and its youngest bright spot can both shine together. Embiid scored 34 points and Maxey chipped in 25 of his own in Brooklyn; it was only the second time this season both players scored at least 20 points in the same game, the other time being the season opener in New Orleans when the duo combined for 42 points.

A big factor in their success Thursday was Maxey’s willingness to be a shooter. His five made threes were a career-high, and his eight attempts were one off his career-high, set when he shot 4-of-9 in his 31-point outing against the Bucks last month. Maxey set the tone early in the game, coming off an Embiid screen and being absolutely unafraid to let it fly:

This next clip came later in the game with Embiid on the bench, but it’s the same fearlessness in seeking above-the-break threes that the Sixers need to see from Maxey when Joel is also on the court:

Maxey is now up to 38.0 percent from behind the arc on the season, but even just settling in as an average shooter willing to fire away is hugely beneficial. Being a threat to shoot not only helps overall floor spacing, consequently aiding Embiid in the post, but it opens up other avenues of Maxey’s game, as Derek Bodner detailed in a recent Daily Six Newsletter:

“Maxey’s so quick that he doesn’t need a defender closing out wildly on him to gain an edge and open up a driving lane. He doesn’t need a Ray Allen level catch-and-shoot 3 to be effective, he just needs momentum to be working in his favor. And if he can get defenders to close out regularly, the paint will open up for him and good things will happen.”

We saw something to that effect on Maxey’s game-icing jumper late in the fourth quarter Thursday. Embiid had three defenders in his vicinity and kicked it out. The ball swung to Maxey, who had a defender sprinting at him because he had just hit two threes within the last five minutes from the exact same spot in the corner. Tyrese hints at the upfake and takes one dribble in for the open baseline jumper.

But if you want to hear it from someone who has played enough basketball, as Doc Rivers might say, how about Embiid joking around with Maxey in the postgame presser:

(Side note: There’s a lot of delicious subtext with Joel telling his point guard to shoot the three and saying that’s how you respond to criticism. Congrats on the engagement, Ben.)

Other aspects of the on-court partnership exist beyond Maxey shooting jumpers, of course. Three of Maxey’s four assists Thursday resulted in Embiid buckets. The first was off a Maxey drive where Nic Claxton helped stop Tyrese in the lane, thereby leaving Joel alone beyond the arc for the three-pointer. Embiid is up to 40 percent from behind the arc this season, creating a pick-your-poison for the opposition when the Sixers go to two-man actions with he and Maxey. Tyrese is often quick enough to get downhill past his own man; if Joel’s defender leaves to help, he risks giving an open shot to a high-percentage shooter, but if he doesn’t, Maxey has a clear path to the rim.

The second assist from Maxey to Embiid Thursday was a post-entry pass over the shoulder of Blake Griffin. While it looks easy enough, those passes are something the Sixers as a whole have struggled with this season, and an area Maxey is continuing to develop within the “true point guard” department.

Now, I still believe head coach Doc Rivers should stagger the minutes of Embiid and Maxey more than he has to this point. Two-man lineups of Embiid and Shake Milton have performed very well together (a plus-13.1 net rating in 180 minutes, per NBA.com stats), and Maxey would help lift the bench unit and thrive with the ball in his hands more often. However, ultimately, the team needs these two to be nearly as dangerous together as they are apart. Hopefully, Thursday was a good sign of things to come.