Tyrese Maxey can’t be settling for 12 shots per game. Not if Joel Embiid is as limited as he looked on Saturday afternoon. Not if the Sixers plan on playing beyond the next round.
At this point, even getting there might take some doing.
Let’s be clear about the straits they face heading into Monday’s Game 5. If the Sixers were playing anybody but the Raptors, they’d be staring down the barrel of a 2-2 series with their big man having been diagnosed with a torn ligament in his shooting thumb following an MRI. They had no business being within striking distance in Game 3, let alone getting a chance at a last-second game-winner, and beyond that, hitting it. Even in Game 4, Toronto seemed uniquely interested in giving the Sixers every chance to build themselves a lead. This time, though, they did not have Embiid.
At least they didn’t have all of him. In years past, that’s how much they’ve needed him. James Harden isn’t changing that fact. He simply isn’t capable, in his current form, of making up for a diminished Embiid. He made that clear in Game 4, when he shot just 5-for-17 from the field and scored 11 of his 22 points from the foul line. That’s not much different from what he’d been giving them as a scorer. But with Embiid clearly impacted by the searing pain in his thumb, the Sixers needed more.
Well, more ain’t coming. Not from Harden. That’s not a criticism. It’s just a statement of fact. He and the Sixers can keep on insisting that his hamstring is not an issue, but the numbers are the numbers. In the seven playoff games leading up to last year’s injury in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Harden averaged 27.1 points on 14.7 attempts per game, shooting 52.4% from the field, including 40.7% from three-point range. In the seven playoff games since he returned from that injury, he is averaging 17.1 points on 13.1 attempts, shooting 34.8% from the field, including 28.6% from three-point range. Read those numbers again and think about what they mean.
Again, that’s not an indictment. Harden still provides plenty of value for the Sixers. Frankly, the way he has impacted the game without scoring the ball should make you more confident in how he will age. It’s easy to forget that he injured his hamstring less than a year ago: 46 weeks ago Monday, to be exact. There’s a chance a full offseason is what he needs.
Right now, though, all that matters is what he is, and he isn’t a guy who is suddenly going to transform into 20-shots-a-game James. His finishing ability has been jarringly lackluster throughout the series: on Saturday, he missed six of the nine shots he took in the paint. He has had an astounding 10 shots blocked in four playoff games, nearly one out of every five attempts. After hitting 4 of his 7 three-point attempts in Game 1, Harden is 5-for-16 in the series’ last three games.
There is only one answer, then. Harden isn’t the one the Sixers should ask to do more. Harden should be the Harden he has been when he has been at his best with this team: the guy who isn’t trying to force stuff at the rim the way he was in Game 4. Right now, he is physically equipped to be a facilitator. But to be that facilitator, he needs a primary scorer to play off of. For three games, that player was Embiid. If Game 4 was any indication, it now needs to be Maxey.
It’s not as easy as it sounds, mind you. The Sixers were going to struggle to beat the Heat even with a healthy Embiid. If all goes according to plan, they’ll have a chance to build a legitimate roster around Harden and Embiid this offseason. Game 4 showed us what they need: two three-and-D guys who can consistently knock down an open look. Think a version of Georges Niang who is also a value-add on defense. This is an important thing to keep in mind for the future: if the Sixers hit their open shots in Game 4, they have a chance to win that game.
That said, Tobias Harris and Danny Green are who they are. Harris has played great this series, but he still isn’t a knock-down weak-side shooter. Green was always streaky, even when he wasn’t 34 and hobbled. If the Sixers can’t run their offense through Embiid, they need to run it through somebody.
That somebody is Maxey. For better or for worse. As good as he has been this season, he still isn’t a great isolation, volume scorer. His body control at the rim is much better than it was as a rookie and it will continue to improve. But he does not have the length or leaping ability to make up for his lack of strength. He is still more of a straight-line scorer rather than he is a guy who can break down a defense off the bounce.
At the same time, Doc Rivers and the Sixers don’t have much of a choice. If Embiid is going to be what he was in Game 4, they need someone else to be better. The one thing Maxey has shown is that he has a scorer’s instinct. He has an ability to rise to the moment. He is a shot-maker. Now, the Sixers need to make him take them.