In what has become an all-too-familiar scene for Sixers fans, Joel Embiid drove to the basket, fell awkwardly and then clutched his knee in obvious pain. In a game that was far too close for comfort against the Trae Young-less Hawks, Embiid gutted out the rest of the fourth quarter — and they needed him to.
Coming off a 50 piece Wednesday in D.C., Embiid was dominant yet again in a 125-114 win Friday that was much closer than the score would indicate. Atlanta bullied their way into a 45-point second quarter and took a six-point lead into halftime. Embiid dropped 13 of his 38 points in the third period to put the Sixers back in front.
But it was his effort after the injury scare that stood out. Embiid was noticeably hobbled, but still came up with a huge block on Dejounte Murray — one of his four on the night — and hit big shots down the stretch to secure the win.
After the game, Embiid downplayed the severity of the injury.
“I’m not sure,” Embiid said when asked what happened. “I’ve got to watch the play, but I just twisted it. So we’re going to talk about it and see how it feels. I should be fine.”
Of course it wasn’t just Embiid that helped close out the game. In what has become a welcomed familiar sight to Sixers fans, Tyrese Maxey was stellar in the fourth. He dropped 16 of his 30 points in the final period. He also posted seven assists and yet another zero turnover game.
Frequently you’ll see Embiid in Maxey’s ear, getting on him to hunt more shots.
“He was great,” Embiid said. “I keep reminding him he has to be aggressive, especially to start the game. But he was great. He attacked, got to the free-throw line, made some big shots, made some big plays.”
That became especially valuable during a few late possessions when Embiid needed a little break offensively with his knee.
“I wouldn’t say it changed,” Maxey said of his mentality after Embiid went down. “I just know a couple plays, he told me to be more aggressive, just so he could get a little break in there. And then we played a little two-man game, got a couple shots. He’s on me all the time about shooting and being aggressive. I think he feels like if I’m being aggressive, it’s going to open up more looks for him. So we’re trying to do that.”
Maxey, currently the betting favorite for Most Improved Player, is continuing his ascension to stardom. As of this writing, he’s averaging 27.1 points and 6.7 assists per game. Through 20 games, he seems like an All-Star lock — maybe an All-Star starter lock.
But of all the things he’s done well to start the season, scoring in the fourth quarter has been maybe his biggest contribution.
Most points in the 4th quarter this season:— StatMuse (@statmuse) December 9, 2023
161 — Maxey
159 — Giannis
152 — Fox, LeBron pic.twitter.com/seYw8Ew23v
There are two reasons this is a big deal for the Sixers — one for the regular season, one for the playoffs.
As we know, typically Embiid will play the entire third period and start the fourth on the bench. There have already been multiple games this season where the outcome was somewhat in doubt heading into the fourth quarter. With Maxey leading the way, there have also been multiple games where the 23-year-old will put the contest away, giving Embiid the entire fourth off. Those types of breaks are invaluable during an 82-game season.
Maxey’s ability to score late becomes potentially even more crucial in the postseason. With teams clogging the paint and doubling and tripling Embiid, it can make late-game scoring difficult for a big man. Think back to Game 6 against the Celtics (sorry) where Embiid hardly got a touch late in a game that could’ve won the series. Maxey’s newfound aggressiveness and larger role could pay huge dividends if the Sixers find themselves in a similar situation.
“ … He made a lot of big shots there late,” Nick Nurse said of Maxey. “Again, he’s capable. He’s explosive and capable of putting it all together like that at any time, and it was a good time tonight — and to stay with it. I didn’t think he was in a great groove most of the night, but he came through when it mattered.”
So, we’ll wait to see the extent of Embiid’s injury, but know Maxey is ready to carry the scoring load if needed.