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The Sixers’ Tyrese Maxey has thrived alongside James Harden since going ‘back home’ to the wing

Maxey has played shooting guard in Harden's first two games with the Sixers, producing at an All-Star level and creating a new, unexpected Big Three with Harden and Joel Embiid.

Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey has averaged 24.5 points on 66.6% shooting in James Harden’s first two appearances.
Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey has averaged 24.5 points on 66.6% shooting in James Harden’s first two appearances.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

NEW YORK — Perhaps 76ers coach Doc Rivers and Tyrese Maxey are both right.

As Rivers pointed out, the second-year player is back on the wing and in a position where he’s comfortable after being forced to play point guard this season. Maxey is also right about his basketball IQ and feel for the game being an asset for the Sixers.

Those factors have enabled the 21-year-old to thrive in James Harden’s first two games as a member of the Sixers.

A lot of the attention has been paid to the dynamic All-NBA duo of Harden and Joel Embiid. However, Maxey has benefited the most since sliding to shooting guard to make room for Harden. He no longer has to focus all of his attention on feeding Embiid and Tobias Harris the ball. Playing freely at shooting guard, Maxey only has to score and allow Harden to set him up to do just that.

But he was forced to play primarily at point guard to fill a need in his first 51 games. A lot of that had to do with Ben Simmons, who had been the team’s lone point guard, refusing to play while requesting a trade. With Simmons out, Maxey had to focus all of his attention on feeding Embiid and Tobias Harris the ball.

Simmons was traded along with Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks to the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 10 in exchange for Harden and Paul Millsap. Maxey remained at point guard for four games following the trade until Harden was fully over his left hamstring strain.

The switch came Friday night when the 2018 league MVP made his much-anticipated Sixers debut — and Maxey has thrived.

» READ MORE: ‘I’m just out there winging it’: Inside James Harden’s first weekend with the Sixers

He averaged 24.5 points on 66.6% shooting, including making 5 of 8 three-pointers, in Harden’s two appearances.

“He’s back home when you think about it,” Rivers said of Maxey being a combo guard last season and during his lone season at Kentucky. “... He’s actually playing the position now that he’s played his whole life. So in some ways, he’s very comfortable playing the way he’s playing.”

Maxey had 28 points on 12-for-16 shooting, including making 2 of 3 three-pointers, to go with four steals in Harden’s debut Friday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center.

He followed that up with a 21-point, seven-rebound, three-assist and two-steal outing versus the New York Knicks on Saturday. Maxey made 8 of 14 shots, highlighted by a 3-for-5 performance behind the arc.

It’s still early, but Tobias Harris — not Maxey — was expected to benefit the most from playing with Harden. However, the standout power forward has struggled through 5 of 18 shooting in the two games. Harris salvaged a rough day against the Knicks by making his last three shots to finish 3-for-9.

But through two games, Maxey has undeniably been the third star of the Sixers’ Big Three. He was asked following Sunday’s game if his success was attributed to playing off the ball.

» READ MORE: Sixers’ James Harden shoots down ‘ball hog’ reputation

“Honestly, it’s just basketball IQ and feel of the game,” Maxey said. “Throughout my short basketball career, high school, I played mostly on the ball. In AAU, we had different guys that could bring it up. So I was on and off the ball. So I just pride myself on being a basketball player and being able to do both.

“I know when James is not in the game, ... I’ll probably have the ball in my hands and have to create for myself and others.”

But when Harden is in the game, Maxey’s job is to knock down shots and read and react to defensive closeouts.

Thanks partially to the young guard’s play, the trio of Harden, Embiid and Maxey are actually off to a better start than last season’s Big Three of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn through two games.

The Sixers trio is shooting a combined 56.5% from the field, including 51.6% on three-pointers, and making 87.5% of its foul shots. The three players also combined to grab 23.0 rebounds, dish out 19.5 assists, and score 88.0 points while averaging 35 minutes in two victories.

Meanwhile, the Durant, Harden, and Irving pairing shot 50% from the field, including 40% on three-pointers, and went 86.7% from the foul line. The trio grabbed 20.5 rebounds, dished 22.5 assists, scored 83.5 points and averaged 43.3 minutes while going 1-1.

» READ MORE: Not too early to wonder if James Harden, Joel Embiid are NBA’s most ‘unstoppable’ duo | David Murphy

To further put the Sixers trio’s stellar play in perspective, their combined 176 points through two games is second in NBA history to the 193 points that Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Arizin and York Larese had with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1961.

Thus far, Maxey has found his place next to Embiid and Harden and made the Sixers tough to beat in the early stages of the Harden era.