ATLANTA — Tyrese Maxey had one thought after getting the biggest news of his professional career.
“Went to shootaround, ate some pasta, called my mom, went to sleep, came to the gym,” Maxey said as he detailed the hours after he learned that the Sixers would be turning to him to save their season.
Oh, to have that kind of mind. And that kind of digestive system.
It was pure Maxey: a smile, a shrug, a few wispy dreadlocks dangling above his eyes. Less than an hour earlier, he was standing at the free-throw line in a raucous arena with 27 seconds left in an elimination game. His first attempt had clanged off the back of the rim, giving a dangerous jolt of hope to a seemingly immortal opponent. The 76ers were up four — to the Hawks, small change. But then the 20-year-old point guard stared down the rim and he calmly knocked down his shot, and nine seconds later he knocked down two more.
There are a lot of reasons the Sixers are still alive, a lot of reasons they averted the disaster most expected to force a decisive Game 7 with a 104-99 win over Atlanta on Friday night. They got some veteran shot-making from Tobias Harris, some veteran grinding from George Hill, and every bit of the rim-protecting they could have hoped for from Joel Embiid. But the primary reason that the season is not yet over was the preternatural presence of the rookie point guard who had played barely more than a minute in their historic collapse in Game 5.
“He was the spark of the game for us,” Harris said as he looked back on the evening with a smile.
Maxey was more than that. He was a game-changer, a series-changer, a season-changer. It took Doc Rivers five games to arrive at a decision that had long felt inevitable, but at least the moment has finally arrived. Maxey’s contributions were so much bigger than the three foul shots he hit down the stretch, and the 16 points that he scored, and the energetic defense he contributed against the Hawks’ maddening three-point attack.
“He just had guts out there,” Harris said. “He had confidence. The minute he stepped on that floor he gave us that boost. He just played with that freeness out there. He wasn’t scared of the moment. He wasn’t shy.”
The story of the Sixers’ improbable rise off the mat lies mostly in the 24 hours that preceded Friday night. The season could have been over. Should have been, really. One night of sleep isn’t nearly enough to move the mind past a defeat as crushing as the one that they suffered. Asked how he coped, Harris said he turned off his phone. Because when you choke on a bone as large as Game 5, every screen that you look at has something to say.
So they exercised their only option. They went back to work. As Rivers and his coaching staff watched the film of the Sixers’ excruciating crunch-time performance in Wednesday’s impossible loss, they had little room to question what needed to be done.
Ben Simmons was a liability down the stretch, whether or not he was standing on the free-throw line. For all of the focus on his psychological struggles at the charity stripe, the real deal-breaker was the Hawks’ complete disregard for him outside of the paint. There were moments in Game 5 when Atlanta looked like a hockey team packing the net on a penalty kill, daring Simmons to dictate, and watching him decline.
This was not a new conundrum. Not for Rivers. Not for anybody who watched the Sixers in the postseason during his first three years in the league. Ever since Bryan Colangelo traded up for Markelle Fultz, the Sixers have known they need to pair Simmons with another guard who can get to the rim. The new factors were threefold. One, Simmons has looked as lost on the offensive end as he ever has. Two, he has looked terrified of the foul line. Three, none of the Sixers’ more ideal remedies has looked anything close to being capable of thriving in a road elimination game. Rivers didn’t say anything of these things — he remains in the midst of a salvage operation — but they are self-evident to anybody with two functional eyes.
Maxey wasn’t just the best choice. He was the only one.
“The first two games [of the series], I thought he struggled,” Rivers said. “They game-planned him. He’s young. You could tell he didn’t know what to do. I thought they were taking him away from the basket.”
Didn’t matter. And it shouldn’t moving forward. Frankly, Maxey should probably be starting Game 7, not in place of Simmons but by his side. As the Sixers gathered for their pregame shootaround at State Farm Arena, Rivers pulled Maxey aside and told him to be ready.
The thing about Maxey is that it didn’t need to be said. When he was in second grade, his father told him five words that have never left his head. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. It has served as his mantra throughout his meteoric rise from late-first-rounder to end-of-the-bencher to primary ballhandler in an elimination game.
“I’ll never forget it,” Maxey said, “which is why I was in the gym every single day, every off day, no days off. Same thing tomorrow. Once you prepare properly, you build your own confidence. I think that’s how you really become successful.”
They are remarkably mature words for a kid who is so professionally immature. And, right now, they’re the reason the Sixers are still alive.