The Sixers’ loss to the Celtics back on Feb. 25 was heartbreaking on a number of levels.
The Sixers’ starters crushed Boston’s while the reserves hemorrhaged points against a super deep Celtics’ bench. Despite that, the Sixers hung with the defending Eastern Conference champs, losing on a Jayson Tatum dagger three with 2.2 seconds left.
As with all Sixers’ losses, the game quickly became a referendum on the entire team and season. Disclaimer: the Celtics loss counts just as much in the standings as the Heat loss a couple nights later.
While there was hand wringing over everything from the head coach to the bench to James Harden’s tough shooting night, it felt like Tyrese Maxey became front and center.
The young guard was struggling. In the 18-game stretch where Maxey was coming off the bench (with one spot start in Sacramento), he averaged 17.4 points a game on 45.3/37/84.8 shooting splits. Those numbers really aren’t bad, but everyone knew Maxey was capable of more.
To the point where Joel Embiid asked after that Boston game what he could do to get Maxey going.
“I just want him to be aggressive,” Embiid said postgame. “It’s funny, because after the game I was talking to him. I was like, ‘What can I do to help you?’ We were just having a conversation and trying to figure out which ways I can help. We had a good conversation. My main thing for him is to just be aggressive.”
A really good conversation, apparently.
Harden and Embiid (rightfully) hog all the headlines when it comes to the Sixers. Their partnership has been as fruitful as just about any in the team’s history. How well they perform (and how healthy they are) will have the biggest impact on how far the Sixers go in the postseason.
But Maxey is also pretty damn important. The 22-year-old guard has recently reminded us of his own star power and how his success and abilities can aid the Sixers’ superstar duo.
It’s been a weird year for Maxey ... not that he’s had a normal NBA season in his young career. Then again, that’s probably what makes him truly a Sixer.
A broken bone in his foot forced Maxey to miss 18 games. When he returned to the lineup, he came off the bench. It was a way to ease him back into the rotation, according to Doc Rivers. Well, not long after, De’Anthony Melton went from keeping Maxey’s starting spot warm to taking it.
As the team sputtered a tad after the All-Star break, Rivers made the decision to get Maxey back into the starting lineup. The results have been spectacular. In five games since returning to the starting unit, Maxey has averaged 26.6 points a game on 75.7 true shooting and bonkers shooting splits (59.5/57.6/100). While that level of efficiency is totally unsustainable, the production is not only feasible but needed.
Maxey left his thumbprint on every game of the Sixers’ impressive 4-1 road trip:
- Without Embiid in Miami, he led the way with 27 points in what turned into a laugher.
- In the second half of that criminal Miami-Dallas back-to-back, Maxey nearly led a ferocious comeback. The Sixers trailed by as much as 25. Thanks to 17 fourth-quarter points from Maxey, the lead was whittled down to as little as four.
- His speed was game-changing in Milwaukee as he dropped 27 points in a huge win.
- He made six threes in a shootout win over the Pacers.
- He dropped 27 without Harden in Minnesota while continuing to grow his chemistry with Embiid.
We often talk about how Harden hasn’t played with a player like Embiid. To an extent you could say the same with Maxey. Sure, peak Russell Westbrook was likely the fastest player in the NBA, but he is a far different player than Maxey. Maxey’s ability to make opponents pay for Harden traps with lightning quick drives or open threes adds an element to the Sixers’ offense they lack when Maxey is off the floor.
Great zone possession by the Sixers. It's like stealing when defenders help off Maxey and he either gets an open three or can attack the closeout. Timely cut by McDaniels too. pic.twitter.com/lYjuAh40Qg— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) March 9, 2023
He’s also an ideal recipient of Harden’s elite look-ahead passes.
(Rightfully) a lot of attention paid to how great Harden and Embiid were down the stretch, but Maxey's speed gave Milwaukee issues all night. Felt like that opened everything up. pic.twitter.com/Z8E3CAPBcP— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) March 9, 2023
The Embiid-Maxey duo also seems to be growing. Embiid flourished running DHOs with JJ Redick and later Seth Curry. He hasn’t really had a guard with that type of shooting gravity to make that action work (occasionally, Rivers will call it for Harden, but the team’s point guard obviously prefers the pick-and-roll). With Maxey’s progression as a shooter and his speed getting downhill, it gives the two-man game with Embiid a different dimension from his past partners.
It's not quite the Redick-Embiid DHO, but this has been a fruitful action. McDaniels doesn't want to go under on this to give Maxey the open three, but neither he or Gobert can recover fast enough (this led to multiple wide-open Embiid threes later in the game). pic.twitter.com/0RBgwW6hXT— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) March 10, 2023
But all credit goes to Maxey for busting himself out of his rut.
Because his floater is so good, finishing has been a struggle at times for the 6-foot-2 guard. As Rivers often says, he wants to see Maxey’s “fingernails hit the backboard” to get him in the flow of the game. He had little issue using his speed and long strides to beat three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert on multiple drives. Likewise against Milwaukee and DPOY candidate Brook Lopez.
The other area where Maxey is continuing to grow is his ability to draw fouls. The reality is most fouls are subjective, so players have to earn reputations in order to get certain calls. Rivers has done his fair share of lobbying for his player. Maxey also said that Harden, who made drawing fouls an art form, has imparted some wisdom in that department.
It was encouraging to see Maxey get eight free throws (just one off his season high) on the national stage and against the NBA’s best team last Saturday night.
Maxey was 8 of 8 from the line. Love this play where he uses his speed and then draws a foul on the veteran Crowder. This is very Trae Young-esque. If Maxey gets this call regularly ... pic.twitter.com/1jtau6dDiE— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) March 10, 2023
Sometimes when a player does so well at such a young age a little perspective gets lost in their development. As Maxey let us know a few weeks ago, he’s human. Confidence is a hell of a thing — and right now he’s playing with a ton of it.
Maxey has been part of the Sixers’ last two second-round disappointments. Against the Hawks, he was a rookie that forced his way into game action. Last season, he was a full-time starter for the first time.
He admitted on Thursday that it was grueling.
“I looked at it yesterday and I’ve played 40-something games,” Maxey told reporters after practice. “So I haven’t really played that much; I’ve played, like, half a season. So I feel really good. It’s a blessing in disguise, I guess you could say. Last year, that was my first year starting throughout the whole year and playing those type of minutes, so I feel like at the end end, I got tired, and I was thinking, ‘Dang, if we win, I’ve still got two rounds to go.’”
Going into this postseason, he should be much fresher.
“But I feel really good, man. God willing, I’ll play all the games throughout the regular season and in the playoffs. Body feels great.”
And they’ll need Maxey to be great alongside Embiid and Harden to get over the second-round hump.