November 10, 2021
The Sixers will have you know there are no moral victories in the NBA, not even when you're playing a seven-man rotation and down 4/5 of last year's starting lineup. Nobody is satisfied with another defeat, especially not the players who spent 40+ minutes trying to pull it out and the coach leading them all from the sideline.
"It's a loss. It's a loss. I wanted to win the game last night and tonight, we had chances," Rivers said. "It's an opportunity to grow, it's an opportunity to get better, I mean I'm not down about the loss. But you either do one or two things in a competition — you either win the game or you lose the game, period."
A loss doesn't mean, of course, that any good from the night has to be thrown out with the extra poster giveaways from Tuesday's loss from the Bucks. And Tyrese Maxey gave the Sixers and their fans something to hold onto in the wake of that defeat, a glimpse of a brighter future for the second-year guard.
Maxey (31 points, five rebounds and four assists on 12/24 shooting) was sensational from the get-go against Milwaukee, pouring in 17 first-quarter points to deliver a strong opening message for Philadelphia. With most assuming this was going to be a walkover game for Milwaukee, the tone changed quickly once Philly got out to a decent first-quarter lead.
Throughout the organization, the Sixers have underlined their confidence in Maxey's shooting potential throughout the last year, convinced his numbers would eventually catch up to the work he puts in. Believers include teammate Danny Green, who was spotted chirping at Maxey in-game Tuesday as the second-year guard loaded up for a corner three in early offense:
"He's on me every single game about shooting the ball," Maxey said. "He said, 'Dude, you shoot the ball the most out of everybody in the gym working out. Dude, shoot the ball. You're open, shoot the ball, stop turning down shots.' And I'm just trying to listen and become more comfortable, and do whatever it takes to help the team. Sometimes it's going to take me shooting open shots, and it's gonna open it up for other guys."
The Kentucky product looked at ease Tuesday, knocking down 4/9 threes and hoisting them in a variety of situations. Quietly, Maxey has started the year off on the right foot as a shooter, working through some early hesitation to get up and hit more shots. Nine attempts on Tuesday skew the numbers a bit, but Maxey is basically doubling his attempts from last year and has managed to hit 38.5 percent of those threes, an 8.4 percent climb from his 2020-21 numbers.
To let Maxey tell it, the bigger step forward is not in shot confidence or success, but his ability to raise his voice and command the respect of the team.
By all accounts, he is the little brother of this group, the player who teammates will chew out if he steps out of line. Georges Niang told reporters Tuesday that hearing someone yell, "Ty—reeeeeeese!" is commonplace, both because they're trying to get him on the right track and because they know he will take it in stride, absorbing any criticism as part of his path to improving.
"For him to come in and do what he does every day and take ownership of it, guys are on him. Tyrese doesn't get any grace from anybody," Niang said. "And he takes it on the chin and continues to grow and be better. It shows, the kid was phenomenal, he's been phenomenal."
Maxey credits that perspective to his father, Tyrone Maxey, who coached him growing up and (at least in the mind of his pupil) was harder on his son than any coach who has had him since, including Rivers and Kentucky mainstay John Calipari. He recalls getting coached hard, win or lose, and even being blamed for things that he can say with confidence today were not actually his fault.
That dynamic between father and son has changed over time, with Maxey admitting Tyrone has softened his criticism as his son has transitioned from child to pro. Still, there are routine check-ins with pops — texts about plays or games, film review and such — that continues to feed into Maxey's obsession with improvement.
"When I was younger, he was extremely hard on me, and I didn't understand why at the time," Maxey said Tuesday. "But now looking back on it, they coach me extremely hard — the vets and the coaching staff — and I really appreciate them for that. I feel like they want the best for me, and it makes me want to go out there and play extremely hard and do whatever I can to help the team win."
It was not so rosy as recently as a few weeks ago, with Maxey floundering to start the year and laying an egg in a nationally televised game against the Knicks on October 26th. To that point in the season, Maxey had graded out as one of the least impactful high-minute players in basketball, a threat to get benched in favor of Shake Milton. Onward and upward since then — in the eight games since, Maxey has a better than three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, 53/50/81 shooting splits, and the Sixers are roughly eight points better than their opponent when he has been on the floor. And Maxey has continued showing growth on the defensive end, an area that kept him from getting closer consideration in the middle portion of last season.
Doc Rivers made no secret of the need for Maxey to improve on defense last season, and the rookie was in the unenviable situation of trying to learn NBA defense without the benefit of training camp or a real offseason to get situated. With the experience of last season under his belt and a more straightforward prep process this summer, Maxey has come out ahead in battles with players as dangerous as Damian Lillard and Trae Young this season. Nailing team defensive concepts, though, is as critical as his ability to get over screens and fight to contest shots, and that's where Maxey can see the return to semi-normalcy helping him out.
"This year, I was able to get in training camp early, I was there on time and I was able to see all the coverages and all the different situations defensively that coach Dan Burke was able to put in, and I think that helped me a lot," Maxey said. "And then it's just watching the film, watching guys on our team, and trying to go out there and compete every single night."
Plays like these, with Maxey tagging a rolling Bobby Portis with Andre Drummond in drop coverage against the pick-and-roll, aren't as exciting as watching Maxey fly through the air and block a bigger player near the basket. But these plays add up over time — you slow down an opponent so his man can recover, show your length to dissuade a kick-out, and stay light on your feet in order to get in place to close if necessary:
Put in enough good days when no one is watching, and eventually they'll start translating to the big stage. Maxey has a long way to go before he can be counted on as a routine, high-level contributor, but the Sixers continue to be thrilled with what he has shown and where he might go.
"The kid's unreal," Niang said Tuesday. "The kid has so much energy and so much pizzazz, he's so poised, and I'm so happy for him because everything that's going on with our team allows him to have growth in his career. Who would have said, if things were different, that he'd have this opportunity? And I love that he's maximizing it."
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