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Tyrese Maxey and James Harden are building strong pick-and-roll chemistry vs. Raptors

The action has yielded wildly successful results for Tyrese Maxey through two games.

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers - Game One Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Tyrese Maxey has been electric in the first two playoff starts of his career. As the Sixers have surged to a 2-0 lead in their first-round series against the Raptors, Maxey has been doing all his team could ask of him. And then some.

Through two games, he’s averaged a team-high 30.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and five assists to only 0.5 turnovers. He’s shooting 68.8 percent from the floor while burying threes off the catch and off tough step-backs for a 57.1 percent stroke from deep. With a perfect 9-of-9 mark from the free throw line as well, Maxey has an absurd 84.8 true shooting percentage to open the series.

All the moves in his constantly expanding bag of tricks are working. From flying past Toronto’s defenders to the rim, to his trusty floater, to a flurry of threes off the bounce, he’s had counters to beat the Raptors’ defense at all three levels. And with the Raptors being so aggressive with their help in the paint and double teams onto James Harden’s drives and Joel Embiid’s work inside, Maxey has exploded with his speedy drives and attacks into open lanes off the catch when his star teammates move the ball.

The sophomore guard has also been developing more synergy in pick-and-roll actions with Harden, something that the Sixers have found success with against the Raptors so far.

We saw some regular season flashes of how useful Maxey and Harden screening for each other could be, but the Sixers have started using it more in the playoffs. In their week preparing for the postseason, the Sixers worked on it far more in their extra practice sessions — to both reiterate its effectiveness, and give Maxey and Harden a chance to polish their chemistry.

“Honestly, I’ve been saying it literally for three weeks, but they never do it,” Doc Rivers said after Game 2. “... And we never had any practice time to work on it. So I thought this week, we literally did it every day to show them how effective it can be. And what we’re trying to show them is they both can be in it. Like one can have the ball on one possession and the other possession the other one can have the ball and they can just play off of each other. You know, it’s funny, you learn stuff coaching — like you tell them stuff, and you think they see it, and then you realize they don’t run it so clearly they don’t see it. Once we got got it in practice, they saw it and it was good.”

One of the best outcomes for a Harden-Maxey pick-and-roll is Maxey either slipping away from screens into space, or simply setting his screen and being in position to receive a pass before his defender recovers or a switch is completed. On the play below, Maxey sets a solid pick on Harden’s defender (Scottie Barnes) as his own man (Fred VanVleet) quickly switches onto Harden. Before Barnes can recover in front of Maxey, Harden rifles a pass to his partner, Maxey turns on the jets, and shoots down the cleared lane for a layup:

Give Maxey a clear lane against recovering defenders, and he only needs a split second to hit a speed that opponents can’t catch and reach the basket.

A Harden-Maxey pick-and-roll is a simple action, but it’s tricky to guard. If you miss a switch or execute it too late, Maxey can be left with a clear lane to drive. If you let Harden or Maxey dribble off a screen into space, they can fire from three. If you hard hedge or trap, one of the duo will be left in space at the arc to either catch and shoot or drive — and Harden in particular can pick apart that kind of pressure with ease as a passer.

A well-timed switch can slow things down, but the Sixers can still find counters to this. Maxey and Harden both require different kinds of defenders, and not every team will have the right personnel to always switch everything. A smaller, quicker guard is preferable on Maxey, while a wing or bigger, heftier guard is better suited to handle Harden’s strength. If defenses don’t switch with ideal personnel, Maxey’s speed or Harden’s size can be used to attack the other’s original defender.

“It’s tough. You’ve got two guards,” Maxey said after Game 2 when talking about his two-man chemistry with Harden. “Either I’m coming off or he’s coming off. You’ve got to make a decision. Do you want to switch? Most of the time they don’t want to get off James’ body and give him any space. If they don’t, I’m getting downhill. If they switch, then he has a matchup or I have a matchup. We just try to get downhill and make plays for ourselves and make plays for others as well.”

Even if a ball screen doesn’t lead anywhere immediately, like the play below where Gary Trent Jr. switches in front of Maxey, then the Sixers can still flow into other options. Here, Harden retakes control of the ball against VanVleet and goes into a pick-and-roll with Embiid. The Raptors can’t switch VanVleet onto Embiid, so they have to stick in drop coverage. With Precious Achiuwa dropping back to try and cut off a potential pass to Embiid, VanVleet trailing, and Pascal Siakam helping too far off Georges Niang in the strong-side corner, it’s easy for Harden to beat the collapsing defense and set up Niang for three:

The next play doesn’t immediately create anything off the initial screen either, but still forces a more favorable matchup for Harden. Maxey’s screen forces OG Anunoby to switch off from Harden, leaving the latter facing the more slender, 6-foot-1 Malachi Flynn. Anunoby has more concern that Harden is going to bully his way through Flynn and stays fairly close to help if need be, so when Harden sends a sudden pass to Maxey, Anunoby has to hurry to recover. Maxey takes full advantage. As Anunoby closes out, Maxey side steps back in the opposite direction, Anunoby stumbles, and the Sixers’ young star buries a clean triple:

Harden can also serve as the screener to throw defenders off for Maxey. On the next play, Harden slips the screen out to the three-point line and Maxey doesn’t ease up for a second, soaring straight down the lane in a flash. As the play develops in a hurry, the Raptors fail to communicate the switch, leaving both VanVleet and Thaddeus Young helplessly watching Maxey take off to the rim. All that Maxey needs to do next is beat a small rim protector left at the basket (in this case Achiuwa), which he does with a nifty adjustment in mid-air to drop in a lefty scoop finish:

Harden and Maxey have been using a lot their two-man game when they’re leading the offense without Embiid. The Sixers’ MVP candidate has highlighted the way they’re attacking different matchups as one of the positives of their play when he’s off the floor.

“They’ve just been doing a great job of playing with pace and looking for matchups, favorable matchups,” Embiid said after Game 2. “... Whether it’s Tyrese attacking or James going one-on-one with a favorable matchup and finding guys that way, I think it’s been great. That’s what we’re gonna need all series and for the future, too.”

Maxey, at just 21 years old as a playoff starter for the first time in his career, has been a driving force in the Sixers taking such a convincing 2-0 lead against the Raptors. And moving forward, in both this series and beyond, it looks like the Sixers have a new offensive wrinkle at their disposal with the growing partnership of the Harden-Maxey pick-and-roll.

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