The Philadelphia 76ers needed something to start working in Game 2 at the Wells Fargo Center on Monday night.
Shots weren’t falling, play was sloppy and energy was low as the Brooklyn Nets took a five-point advantage into the halftime break. The Sixers only had one thing really going for them through the first 24 minutes — their young, fast-flying guard out of Kentucky, Tyrese Maxey.
While Philadelphia managed just 44 points on 42.5 percent field goal shooting in the half, Maxey led the way with 15 points, shooting 6-for-8 from the floor and 2-for-3 from beyond the arc. Without him, it very well could have been a much more lopsided score at the break.
The Sixers held Brooklyn to 49 points on just 39.5 percent field goal shooting headed into halftime. Maxey shined on this end of the floor as well, effectively shutting down Spencer Dinwiddie and limiting him to just three points in the first half.
Maxey’s first half performance was overshadowed, however, by the Sixers overall playing one of their worst halves of basketball all season. At its close, they were fortunate to only be down single digits, and Maxey knew it.
“We started out slow but went into the half only down five. As bad as we played offensively, we were only down five points,” Maxey explained postgame Monday. “We knew if we could get our offense to catch up to our defense, and continue to be stingy on defense, then we knew we had a shot.”
After Sixers head coach Doc Rivers called a timeout just a minute into the second half, the Sixers emerged energized and ready to take the advantage back from Brooklyn.
The problems remained on offense, however. Joel Embiid was hindered by double-teams and sometimes even triple-teams, while James Harden couldn’t make a shot, forcing the scoring responsibilities to fall elsewhere in Game 2. Luckily for Philadelphia, Maxey was ready to shoulder the weight entrusted to him by his teammates, even after a sloppy first half.
“We didn’t shoot great from three tonight, but we got open looks,” Maxey said. “I think the biggest thing is [Joel Embiid] is trusting. I kept telling him to keep trusting and keep believe and guys are going to hit shots.”
Maxey was right on both accounts. It wasn’t the Sixers’ best three-point night, especially compared to the barrage of triples they sank in Game 1. However, the Sixers continued to trust each other to take those shots, and they started to fall more when it mattered. The Sixers shot 37 percent from beyond the arc in the second half compared to 25 percent in the first, with Maxey again leading the way. He sank four triples in the second half as the Sixers regained control and extended their lead.
Maxey’s 18-point second half filled the void left by the swarming defense on Embiid and a disastrous shooting night from Harden. For coach Rivers, that’s what it’s about. It’s simply about trusting his players to take advantage when they’re the open man, and he trusts Maxey to be ready when called upon like he was in Game 2.
“We put a guy under the basket, they’re going to trap,” Rivers explained. “Let the ball find the open guy and for a lot in the second half it was Tyrese, which we’re good with, not only for his shot but also with his attacks.”
That athletic, speedy attack that Sixers fans have come to know and love was on full display in a particular moment in the third period that encapsulated Maxey’s performance. With a few minutes left in the frame, the 22-year-old took a pass in transition and attacked directly into Cam Johnson and the Nets defense, hitting a contested lay-up and earning the and-one opportunity. As it fell, the Sixers took a five-point lead and Maxey flexed toward the crowd, letting out an empathic scream before heading to the line.
Once the Sixers took that lead in the third, they never let it go. Maxey led the Sixers in victory with 33 points (6-for-13 from beyond the arc) and a +17 in the eventual 96-84 victory. It was an impressive performance, especially after Game 1. It’s not that Maxey played badly necessarily in the opening contest, but it wasn’t his best game, shooting 3-for-8 from the floor for 13 points.
Nevertheless, he turned it around Monday night.
“I just want to win, man,” Maxey said. “We knew this was an important game. [P.J. Tucker] said as soon as we won Game 1 that Game 2 would be the hardest game, and we wanted to make sure we protected home court.”
They certainly did. Maxey and the Sixers will bring a 2-0 series lead to Brooklyn for Game 3 on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. ET.