The first round was over and the arena was nearly empty when a lonesome figure emerged from the tunnel behind the home bench. As the cleanup crews shuffled through the rows and aisles, collecting the remnants of a clinching victory, Shake Milton dribbled a ball toward one of the hoops. All of their workdays were just now starting.
Things are about to change for the Sixers. For Milton they already have. Heading into their series-clinching win over the Wizards on Wednesday night, the third-year combo guard had been one of the biggest beneficiaries of his coach’s prodigious capacity for grace. Doc Rivers wanted Milton to be his guy off the bench. He gave him every opportunity to make it happen despite a lackluster regular season that ended in a more-than-lackluster funk. But after a couple of sparkling performances by a sublime rookie point guard in Games 4 and 5, Rivers has to understand that the tryout phase of the postseason is over. The Hawks are a real opponent. The Sixers need real minutes. Tyrese Maxey has shown that he will provide them.
Of all of the rotation questions that Rivers currently faces, this one deserves the least amount of thought. Really, Maxey has already answered it. The Sixers needed somebody to step up and make their small-ball dreams a reality. A 20-year-old noob is the one who did it. It might not be how you’d draw it up in a perfect world, but there is no such thing as utopia right now. Necessity is the Sixers’ reality. With Joel Embiid’s immediate future in doubt, Rivers needs a player who can give him a spark.
“Every time he steps on the floor, whether he’s playing good or he’s playing bad, he has the same mentality and same approach of being aggressive,” Sixers guard Seth Curry said. “From the first playoff game, he’s never been shy, never been afraid of the moment, and that’s what we need.”
That’s what Maxey gave them in Game 4 on Monday night, coming off the bench to score 15 points and help ignite the Sixers’ furious second-half rally. In Game 5, he was even better, enthralling an already ravenous crowd with his infectious embrace of the moment. The former Kentucky star finished with 13 points, six rebounds, two assists, and one steal in 26 electrifying minutes. Even more impressive than the output were the circumstances. In Game 4, the Sixers seemed stunned into submission by Embiid’s first-quarter injury before Maxey helped steady the ship. There was one second-half sequence when he knocked down a three-pointer on one end of the court and then forced a Russell Westbrook turnover on defense. In Game 5, they were down, 24-19, when he first took the court. He finished with a plus-14.
“It think he’s a hell of a player,” Rivers said after Game 5. “I think he has found himself. He figures out now how we need him to play, what makes him not only him a good player but making everybody good on the floor when he’s on the floor.”
Rivers knows his team better than anybody. He’s more than earned the benefit of the doubt. From here, though, he certainly looks like a guy who needs to swing for the fences. Even if Embiid is able to play through the knee injury that sidelined him for Game 5, it’s a safe bet that he won’t be able to handle anything close to the load that is usually on his shoulders. On both ends of the court, Rivers needs to find a player who can help him reroute some of that burden. Maxey at least has that potential.
Look, I’m sure I’m biased by the fact that the kid is so much damn fun to watch. But the Sixers are a team in need of a little fun. In addition to Embiid’s production, they need to replace his energy. You know Maxey can provide it if you were at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night. The first time he checked in, the crowd went berserk. Only the refs prompted a louder reaction.
“Every time the team’s needed him, he’s stepped up, and I really don’t see why he [won’t] continue to do it,” Sixers guard Matisse Thybulle said.
Maxey’s exact role will depend on a bunch of other decisions that Rivers and Nate McMillan make. If you like coaching, or yelling at coaches, Hawks-Sixers is the series for you. The Hawks have a near-infinite number of combinations they can dial up, whether or not the Sixers have Embiid. Without him, the Sixers have no easy answers.
In a perfect world, Mike Scott would be an adequate small-ball five, and the Sixers could pull Clint Capela away from the rim. Rivers gave him the opportunity in Game 5. The tryout lasted just three minutes.
Dwight Howard? He and Ben Simmons have been brutal together. In fact, one of the pivotal stretches in Game 5 were the four minutes they played together at the end of the third quarter and into the fourth, when the Sixers outscored the Wizards by five. In the regular season, though, the Sixers had a minus-10 net rating when they were on the court together. There just isn’t enough space for both of them.
Problem is, the most obvious spot for Howard is opposite Capela, the Hawks’ long, rim-running center. Which makes the obvious spot for Capela on the court with Simmons. Which brings us back to where we started.
With a healthy Embiid, the Sixers’ offense would physically overwhelm the undersized Hawks. Without him, they must beat them at their own game. In Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic, Atlanta has a couple of perimeter players that have the potential to give the Sixers problems. In De’Andre Hunter, they have a big-bodied wing who can help pack the paint on Simmons. In John Collins and Danilo Gallinari, the Hawks have a couple of small-ball bigs who can help McMillan counter whatever direction the Sixers choose to go.
There’s no doubt about one thing. The Sixers will need to score buckets. They will need to score them in bunches. With or without Embiid, they will need gumption and moxie. They need to give Maxey the chance to bring it.