Hashtag it however you want. Shake Shake. Cork Kork. For the Sixers to maximize their title odds, they need to Maxey-ize their bench. Among all of the lessons Doc Rivers took from Game 1, this was the one that should be shouted the loudest.
You get the sense that the Sixers’ coach knows it. He has a player on the bench who can give him a lot of what he needs. Tyrese Maxey might not be the most refined rookie in NBA history, and he certainly isn’t the biggest. But after an impressive couple of stints in the Sixers’ 125-118 victory over the Wizards, the rookie point guard is making it hard to deny him minutes.
“He’s going to keep earning more,” Rivers said on Tuesday after the Sixers wrapped up practice in preparation for Wednesday’s continuation of their first-round series against the Wizards. “That would be my guess.”
We’re not talking 48 minutes. Not even half of that. These are the playoffs, after all. If Ben Simmons can play 40, he should play 40. George Hill has earned every minute he gets. Beyond that, though, the best thing you could say about the Sixers’ bench in Game 1 is that it still has a lot of confidence left to inspire.
Give Rivers credit for giving guys like Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz a fair chance. But after the coach stood by his men, his men stood idle. When Milton checked into the game late in the first quarter on Sunday, the Sixers held a 22-16 lead. By the time he checked out, they trailed 32-27. Packed into that four-minute stretch were a 10-0 Wizards run, four straight scoreless possessions by the Sixers, a missed layup and a missed three by Milton, and a couple of missed threes by Korkmaz.
Compare that to Maxey’s first shift later in the second quarter, which he opened by beating his man off the dribble, muscling in a shot through contact, and then hitting a free throw to complete the three-point play. Sometimes, the circumstances call for polish and maturity. Sometimes, they call for gumption.
Call it chutzpah. Call it fearlessness. Call it a guy who will not pick up his dribble in traffic. Maxey has the look of playoff basketball’s most precious commodity. He has the makings of an X-factor.
“I’m super impressed with Maxey,” Hill said on Tuesday. “I love the kid. I love his heart. I love what he brings to the table. He’s a sponge. He’s always trying to get better.”
Granted, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. In Game 1, Hill showed that he is far and away the Sixers’ best bench asset, a steady leader who always seems to make the right decision on both ends of the court. He finished his 18 minutes with 11 points while setting up a bunch more with his passing. Meanwhile, Matisse Thybulle’s unceasing on-ball harassment will continue to warrant utilization. The pool of available minutes won’t often be nearly as large as it was in the series opener.
At the same time, Rivers needs to find a way to get Maxey involved. The potential benefit goes well beyond the Wizards. At some point in these playoffs, the Sixers are going to need every ounce of talent they can get. They are going to need lateral quickness, and a quick first step. They are going to need gumption. Look at the problems the Wizards gave them in transition in Game 1 and then replace Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook with Kyrie Irving and James Harden, not to mention Kevin Durant.
If the Sixers end up facing the Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals, they will not have the luxury of spending four minutes dilly-dallying around the court. One way to beat a team with Brooklyn’s firepower is to outscore it on the bench. Maxey has the potential to be that kind of scorer.
“I’ve been a part of some great rookies,” Hill said. “De’Aaron Fox, Collin Sexton — [Maxey] has what those guys have: a high motor; a willingness to learn and take the keys and drive that car. I know he’s going to be a great guard in this league for many, many years and I’m just happy to be a part of it as a stepping-stone to his career.”
The Sixers have seen it in practice. They saw it plenty of times during the regular season. Maxey’s 25.1 points per 100 possessions was the fourth-best mark on the team. He’s shooting 34% from three-point range in his last 26 games. He’s hit nine of his last 19.
The trend line has moved in one direction. Maxey was better than the draft board gave him credit for when the Sixers stole him at No. 21. He was better than a 20-year-old rookie should have been during his early-season stint in the Sixers’ rotation, and he was better still when he resurfaced.
Is Maxey good enough to make a postseason difference? There’s only one way to find out.