More Sports:

April 21, 2023

In Sixers' time of need, Tyrese Maxey's poise shines again

BROOKLYN — Tyrese Maxey does nothing slow. His end-to-end speed is among the best in the NBA, his growth as a shooter was meteoric, and even his urgency to get his postgame media done is palpable. The 22-year-old often shows up at the podium still wearing compression shirts and game-worn sneakers, processing his game for the public while his teammates are still in the showers.

After hitting the biggest shots of Philadelphia's Game 3 victory over Brooklyn, though, Maxey had a moment to reflect on a slow journey. He recalled a moment during his rookie season with the Sixers, when he was called into the head coach's office in the middle of the season, told by Doc Rivers he was going to win them a playoff game. 

"There in that time, I was just highly confused," Maxey said. "I went home and told my uncle, my dad, and my mom, Doc called me I would win a playoff game. I hadn't played in two weeks, how does that even correlate?"

The head coach ended up being wrong — he won them two games that year, which included a sensational Game 6 performance in Atlanta that bailed Philadelphia's older stars out. And it has become clearer over time that if he stays in Philadelphia long enough, Maxey is going to win this franchise a lot of playoff games. 

In classic Maxey fashion, he needed very little forward momentum at the end of Game 3 to transform into a one-man avalanche in crunch time.  He had paced Philadelphia as a scorer in the first half, scoring 15 of his eventual 25 on an electric combination of three-point jumpers and dashes to the rim, rendering Brooklyn's best-laid plans moot. After halftime, it was as if everyone had forgotten this happened, with Maxey managing just one shot attempt in the third quarter. 

Here lies the eternal struggle for Maxey as part of this group. Even when Maxey is rolling, he sits below Joel Embiid and James Harden in the team hierarchy and is often forced to wait for his opportunities after they've had their chances first.

"I'm always trying to get him activated," P.J. Tucker said after the game. "Sometimes he gets lost in the shuffle just with James and Jo sometimes, but he doesn't need a lot to get going. Tyrese will hit a layup, get fouled, hit a couple of free throws, and then he can just run 'em off and take over the game. He's so young, he's just like, he doesn't even know. He missed a few or whatever, but he just get it going and make one shot, he's that good."

Maxey would hit a floater at the 3:10 mark of the fourth quarter, beating Cam Johnson in a foot race while avoiding the long arm of Dorian Finney-Smith at the rim. Eight more points would follow before the game was up — a pull-up three with Mikal Bridges sinking, a transition layup after his own steal, and the game's biggest shot, a contested three in the final minute to pull Philadelphia ahead for good.

"He's a tough kid," Doc Rivers said Thursday. "He hung in there, we drew up the play for him with Joel coming out of the timeout, and he wanted that shot. He wanted that shot. And that was great to see." 

No matter how many times it is said, Maxey's growth as a shooter remains almost impossible to believe. He is one of the best shooters in the entire league, full stop, after struggling to even find the courage to let it fly during his rookie season. Brooklyn's switch-and-double gameplan has succeeded at slowing down Embiid, whose numbers have dipped well below his season averages, but the cost of that decision has been crystal clear watching Maxey carve up the Nets. You can't afford to switch a bad defender onto him, or go under a screen, or focus on taking another option away in transition. By the time you've considered the error of your ways, the ball has already gone through the basket.

Maxey so often mentions the impact of encouragement from his teammates in moments like these. In the locker room, he and Embiid have something close to a big brother/little brother dynamic, with the two faux-mocking one another during media sessions and huddling close in moments after games. Maxey rising to the occasion during the Ben Simmons theatrics of last season earned him quite a bit of cache, with his work shining through after being thrust into a larger role than expected.

That level of trust, Maxey said on Thursday, is part of what allows him to have the stones to call his own number over the MVP on the game's pivotal possession. 

"Because he believes in me," Maxey told PhillyVoice when asked how he found the confidence to be aggressive late. "And I put the work in, I believe in myself. I hit a few, my confidence got rolling, and as soon as Joel got the switch and did me like this, told me to go, I went out there and went."

Over the last two games of the Brooklyn series, Maxey has almost inarguably been Philadelphia's best player on offense. He scored 33 points in Philadelphia's Game 3 win, mostly getting to it by cashing out on catch-and-shoot threes. This was another matter entirely, with Maxey frequently having to create for himself and serve as the perimeter leader with James Harden watching from the locker room. 

He is a paradoxical player in some ways, a young kid who appears to have the killer instinct in pressure moments while also being so overwhelmingly kind and respectful of the team hierarchy. But anyone who can properly channel that duality would have a close-to-ideal offensive star on their hands, a leader and closer who offers the comfort of a warm blanket to teammates on and off of the floor.

And there is no better testament to his game than this — on a team with two name-brand stars with title expectations, no one will ever second guess whether No. 0 shooting in crunch time was the right decision.

"Unbelievable," James Harden said of Maxey following the game. "He played with a controlled pace the entire game. He made just timely plays, whether it was three balls, getting to the basket, just being free. That's what he's been doing all year."

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports