MIAMI — This is progress. This is evolution.
It was a 119-103 loss, and it left them down 0-2 in the series, but the Sixers moved forward.
James Harden, the $44 million enigma, played more aggressively and had 20 points. Just four in the second half, but 20 is more than 16, and that’s all he had in the Game 1 loss; so, progress.
DeAndre Jordan, Joel Embiid’s putative replacement in the starting lineup, finished with six points and five rebounds. His backup, Paul Reed, didn’t commit a foul every other possession; he only had two. Doc Rivers, casting about for answers to replace Embiid’s 26.2-point playoff average, on Wednesday gave Furkan Korkmaz the backup minutes he’d given Shake Milton on Monday. Furk had eight points. Upgrade.
Georges Niang even hit a three. He fouled out in less than 11 minutes, but at least the South Beach Bod broke his 0-for-8.
The Sixers turned the ball over just eight times versus 14 in Game 1, allowed just eight offensive rebounds versus 15 in Game 1. Huzzah.
But nothing was more obvious Wednesday than this: It’s time to pass the torch from Harden, a 32-year-old playing like he’s 50, to Maxey, a second-year revelation playing like he was born to play springtime NBA basketball.
Maxey hit threes. Maxey hit runners. Maxey got to the line. Maxey did everything Harden was supposed to do, but couldn’t. He scored 34 points on 12-for-22 shooting.
That’s more points and more field goal attempts than Harden has managed in any game since he arrived at the Feb. 10 trade deadline.
“I was settling way too much the last two games,” Maxey said. “They were switching, and I was backing up. ... Once I figured it out, that I could get to the paint almost every single play.”
Which simplifies things for Doc.
Until Embiid returns from his concussion and broken eye socket, run everything through Maxey.
Give him the freedom Harden had in his Houston heyday. The freedom Kyrie Irving has in Brooklyn. The freedom Steph Curry enjoys in Golden State.
Maxey has to adjust to this mindset. He says he’s going to keep being unselfish, that he’s going to keep firing passes to the perimeter after he slashes into the paint, but the Sixers have missed 50 of their 64 three-pointers, and that’s less than 22% so ... no. Fire away, Max.
He has nothing to lose. Doc has nothing to lose. Maxey had 34. He could’ve had 44. He should’ve had 44. But Harden didn’t let that happen, and Doc didn’t make it happen.
“We always want to” ride the hot hand, Rivers said, and he has great deference to Harden: “James has that, too.”
No; James had that. We understand the deference to the No. 4 active scorer in the NBA, but the key phrase here is “active,” and it no longer describes Harden as well as it describes Maxey.
The Heat have no one who can match Maxey’s speed. They have no one who can contain him in the halfcourt, limited as Maxey’s repertoire is.
Make Harden the afterthought. Make Harden “Option B.”
Make Maxey the Man.
Harden just isn’t Harden anymore. That cost the Sixers their best chance Wednesday.
It was early in the fourth quarter and Maxey had scored the Sixers’ last 11 points to cut it to eight with 10 minutes left. He had 28 points. Then the Harden Show began.
The Harden Horror Show.
Harden tried to shake Victor Oladipo, one-on-one, on three consecutive possessions. He missed three straight shots. Less than five minutes later, the lead was 18.
Maxey hadn’t gotten another shot.
Doc should have seen this, and he should have stopped it, but, hey, these things happen in the heat of a big game. What’s obvious to the detached viewer, what’s organic for reflective basketball minds, gets clouded on the sideline. It becomes clearer the next day on tape.
Lesson learned. A lesson for the rest of this series. A lesson for the rest of Maxey’s career as a Sixer.
And, frankly, Harden’s.