The Philadelphia 76ers were already relying on Tyrese Maxey more than your average 21-year-old who had been drafted outside the lottery just 17 months ago. His play served as something of a barometer for the team’s overall success in their opening-round series against Toronto. In the Sixers’ four victories, Maxey averaged 26.3 points, while scoring a total of just 23 points across the two losses. Now, in the wake of Joel Embiid’s heartbreaking injury and indefinite absence, they’ll need even more from their young phenom in the upcoming series against the top-seeded Miami Heat. The good news for Sixers supporters, however, is that Maxey has already shown he has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with head coach Erik Spoelstra’s club.
Maxey appeared in all four of the Sixers’ games against the Heat this season, averaging 21.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists against 2.3 turnovers, with .564/.409/.824 shooting splits. Of course, the game foremost on everyone’s mind is the most recent one, March 21 in Philadelphia, when Maxey led a Sixers team missing both Joel Embiid and James Harden to a 113-106 win over a basically full-strength Miami squad. Tyrese dropped 28 points in just 28 minutes in that victory, one of just three times this season he has scored at least one point per minute (the regular season finale against Detroit and Game 1 against Toronto being the others).
While Miami is an excellent defensive team, fourth in defensive rating during the regular season, they do have some weak points. The Sixers appeared to find one in that March 21 victory. Per NBA.com matchup data, Maxey was most frequently guarded by Jimmy Butler, then Kyle Lowry, then Tyler Herro. It was the Herro matchup where Tyrese really exploded, shooting 5-of-6 from the field for 12 points. What was interesting in that game is that Miami was seemingly comfortable with Herro getting the assignment, allowing him to switch onto Maxey out of casual dribble-handoffs or screens out top which could have reasonably been fought through. The result was an assortment of pull-up jumpers and dashing drives to the cup for the former Kentucky Wildcat.
The Sixers use the exact same setup again here.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) March 22, 2022
Two quick DHOs before Maxey goes at Herro. Maxey beats him to the rim and uses a great scoop finish high off the glass to beat Bam sliding over to contest. pic.twitter.com/pEODhPGaTg
By the end, you could tell Caleb Martin was very attentive about trying to help when necessary on Maxey, but Tyrese was so locked in that it didn’t matter.
In the upcoming series, I’d look for Miami to do more to avoid having Herro locked onto Maxey. But the Sixers can devise ways where that becomes unavoidable, or force Miami into choosing that or having Herro deal with the strength of James Harden or Tobias Harris in a similar situation. The Sixers have often been burned in past playoff matchups by having an offense-first guard on the floor other teams could exploit defensively (JJ Redick, Seth Curry). Now is their time to turn the tables and go after Tyler Herro with Tyrese Maxey as the vanguard of the attack.
With Embiid out, the Sixers are going to have to matchup-hunt even more, whether that’s getting a favorable look against Herro or someone like Duncan Robinson. Speaking to reporters Saturday, Tobias Harris spoke about how Joel’s absence might result in more pick-and-roll action and perimeter-oriented play for the team:
“There’s probably gonna be more pick-and-roll play that favors us three [himself, Tyrese, and James Harden] in those actions, but truth be told, it’s just us figuring out what we can go to through the course of the game. In the playoffs, it’s always adapting to figure out how the other team’s playing, what they’re taking away, what they’re allowing, and for us to capitalize in that regard. All three of us are always ready to be aggressive, are gonna be aggressive, and it’s on us to just figure out ways that we can capitalize for the whole group out there.”
It’s going to be a collective effort for the rest of the starting lineup to replace Embiid’s production, but at least the Sixers have seen Maxey replicate that production in the past.
Looking to the other side of the ball, the Miami series is a good matchup for Maxey defensively as well. Especially once Fred VanVleet went out, the Raptors typically featured lineups with all players standing 6-foot-5 or taller on the court. Though game to provide effort, it was a tough situation for Tyrese when any opponent could rise up and shoot over his 6-foot-2 frame. However, at an even six feet tall, Miami’s Kyle Lowry is a nice landing spot for Maxey in this series. Lowry was his most frequent assignment in that March 21 game, and the Philly native only shot 1-of-5 from the field with Maxey as his primary defender. Even before that game, Maxey had found success with the assignment, most notably this soul-snatching back in January.
Tyrese Maxey with an incredible block and steal on Lowry pic.twitter.com/mZBW9qUf4I— hoops bot (@hoops_bot) January 16, 2022
In just his second professional season, Tyrese Maxey has already provided this Sixers team with more than could have reasonably been expected at such a young age. Is it fair to count on him to up his game even more with Joel Embiid sidelined? Probably not. But iron sharpens iron, and if any young man can rise to the challenge, it’s Maxey with his ‘one percent better every day’ mentality. The Sixers may now be heavy underdogs in this second-round series, but at least they have one rising star for whom Philadelphia fans will happily strap on the dog mask to root on starting Monday night.