Heading into their first-round matchup with the Raptors, everyone knows the Sixers’ formula for success this postseason revolves around the performances of Joel Embiid and James Harden.
How the duo performs will dictate how far Philly advances, as it looks to finally get past the second round and secure a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
While Embiid and Harden are more than capable of shouldering a heavy load offensively, it’ll be the responsibilities of the supporting cast to provide production when either one (or both) of them are having an off night in what is set to be a grueling series.
A crucial member of that supporting ensemble is point guard Tyrese Maxey, who head coach Doc Rivers will surely ask to take on a bigger role at both ends of the floor.
So, what should expectations be for the 21-year-old competing in his first playoffs as a full-time starter?
Not a disappearing act when the going gets tough like the team’s former starting point guard, that’s for sure.
In four meetings vs. Toronto throughout the regular season, Maxey averaged 19.8 points per game, along with 3.4 assists and 50 percent shooting from three-point range. He exploded in the first matchup between the two, scoring a season-high 33 points on 12-of-19 shooting and a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line.
Now, it’s common knowledge that when the postseason rolls around, the defensive intensity is ramped up to a 10. How Maxey responds to that intensity matched up with guards like Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. will be closely watched, as his ability to fearlessly attack the rim and draw fouls cannot go extinct in pivotal situations.
One caveat is the status of VanVleet, who missed the last three games of the regular season with a nagging knee injury. He’s not on the injury report anymore, but if he isn’t 100 percent, Maxey needs to take advantage of this matchup and gauge how healthy his opponent truly is.
While VanVleet only played in one matchup versus the Sixers this year, Maxey has more familiarity with being guarded by Trent Jr., having been guarded by the Raptor for a total of 15:38. The edge goes to Maxey here, as this head-to-head battle has resulted in 95 points for the Sixers, which is 10th-most among the team.
Recently, a tweet from NBA analyst Kirk Goldsberry revealed the leading scorers in the league by zone. While a pair of zones were owned by Embiid, an area right around the basket belonged to Maxey, who beat out the likes of Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler.
Leading Scorers By Zone. What Jumps Out? pic.twitter.com/gGt5ZSq4zm— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) April 12, 2022
It won’t be easy driving into bigs like Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher, but if Maxey can work his way into the paint and continue producing from in close with his arsenal of floaters and midrange shots, there’s no reason he can’t average close to 20 points a game and supply a lift when needed.
The addition of Harden, meanwhile, has done nothing but opened up space for players like Maxey, who should continue being a big benefactor of Harden’s ability to find open teammates in high-percentage areas.
Maxey’s production this season beyond the arc (42.7 percent) has been the most welcoming improvement to his game, and one that shouldn’t be forgotten once Saturday rolls around.
With Harden and Embiid drawing most of the defense’s attention, the shots will be there for Maxey, and the expectation will be that he remains trigger happy when the opportunities come his way.
When looking at the best lineups Rivers can deploy with Maxey on the court offensively, the obvious one is the starting five. In 323:04 minutes on the court together, the group of Maxey/Thybulle/Harris/Harden/Embiid averages 19.4 points more than the opposition, while two of the team’s top three four-man combinations include Harden, Harris and Maxey.
In Toronto, the starting five will just substitute Green in for Thybulle, with that lineup still producing a rating of +11.1. With this lineup and the added attention on Embiid and Harden, Maxey will have plenty of opportunities to drive and kick to what will most likely be a wide open man, whether it be Green, Harris or Harden, on the wing.
Hell, even when the bench enters the game and guys like Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang come in, those chances for Maxey should still present themselves.
Perhaps the most exciting/relieving asset Maxey brings to the table is his proficiency from the charity stripe. Sixers fans don’t need a reminder about “hack-a-Ben”, as it has most likely been engrained into their minds forever.
It’s not necessary to refresh everyone’s memories and recall Ben Simmons’ performance from the free throw line last postseason, so just rest assured that with Maxey, a nearly 87 percent free throw shooter this year, there won’t be any intentional fouls to send the Sixers to the line with five minutes left in the game.
This was even showcased in last year’s Game 6 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. While Simmons struggled mightily, Maxey was called off the bench late by Rivers to come in and act as the primary ball-handler. He delivered, recording 16 points and seven rebounds, as well as making 5-of-8 free throw attempts to help force a Game 7.
Defensively, Maxey will surely draw the assignment of FVV, who poured in 32 points on 6-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc. Pressuring VanVleet immediately and not letting him get into a rhythm is paramount for the Sixers, regardless of the question marks on his health.
Because Toronto can use players like Boucher, Siakam, Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa to create screens for VanVleet at the top of the key, Maxey will have to be aware of these switches and make sure he’s constantly communicating with teammates whenever they occur.
It’s easy to say Maxey is still young and expectations shouldn’t reach unreasonable levels, but the outstanding improvements he has made this year should have fans hopeful that it’ll translate into the postseason.
If he struggles, the onus will fall on the older players to pick up their teammate and make sure he doesn’t try to force things when they start going sideways.