One of the few things Tyrese Maxey has left to learn is how to take a victory lap. With two minutes remaining and the Sixers cruising to a blowout win in their playoff opener against the Raptors, the second-year guard glanced toward the scorer’s table and saw a gaggle of subs ready to check in. Aware that his night was over, Maxey waited for the next whistle and then immediately cut a diagonal path through the other nine players on the court, plopping down at the end of the bench before the end of his shift had even been announced. By the time the Wells Fargo Center crowd realized what had happened, the kid was just another pair of shoulders on the sidelines, doing his best to blend into a building that couldn’t stop chanting his name.
“Honestly, I appreciate it,” Maxey said after his scintillating 38-point performance left the home crowd in hysterics during the Sixers’ 131-111 playoff-opening victory over the Raptors on Saturday, “but I think the only thing that I’m going to remember is us winning, because that’s the only thing that matters at this point.”
It would be a mistake to call him the reluctant star of Game 1, because there was nothing reluctant about the way Maxey played. Whether he was exploding to his left and muscling home an off-balance And-1 or pulling up from 30 feet to drain a three-ball at the shot clock buzzer, the second-year guard spent 38 minutes playing with a level of decisiveness that made you forget he was sharing the court with two of the NBA’s biggest stars. His 21 third-quarter points almost single-handedly kept the Raptors at arm’s length, each of his buckets growing in magnitude: a three-pointer after they’d cut the Sixers lead to 12, a floater at 13, that ridiculously deep pull-up over a defender to push the margin back to 20.
“He just doesn’t play with anxiety,” said head coach Doc Rivers, whose Sixers outscored the Raptors, 38-37, in that pivotal third period. “That’s why you love him.”
Love is a strong word, but maybe not strong enough. In a city that is easily smitten by young homegrown players, and often finds itself smited, Maxey offers the chance to latch onto something real. After a regular season in which he averaged 17.5 points per game and shot .427 from three-point range as a first-year starter, the 21-year-old looked in Game 1 like a player who can have a transformative impact on the Sixers’ postseason hopes. That’s how impressive he was. On a night where the Raptors’ frenetic switching defense held Joel Embiid and James Harden to a combined 11-for-32 shooting from the field, Maxey was the player the Sixers needed to flip the script.
“He’s like the perfect player,” said Harden, who struggled to get to the rim against the Raptors’ switches but shot 4-for-7 from three-point range and dished out 14 assists. “We work on it in practice — as I get to my spots and try to get downhill, his man helps, and it’s a quick swing, no hesitation, he has his shot. And he’s smart enough to know if he doesn’t have his shot, put the ball on the ground and get into the paint and something good is going to happen.”
It’s funny: Harden was supposed to be the player who would help the Sixers avoid the lengthy stretches of offensive stagnation that plagued them during last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals to the Hawks. But even as Harden showed his value against the Raptors, you couldn’t help but wonder how last year’s version of the team would have fared with this year’s version of Maxey. As impressive as the numbers were in Game 1 — 38 points, 14-of-21 shooting, 5-for-8 from three-point range — the real story of the night was his ability to take a pass from Harden or Embiid and explode past a defender and make plays around the rim. Remember, this is a Raptors team whose identity is its defense, and Maxey rendered their game plan moot.
Granted, we are one game into a seven-game series. It will be fascinating to see how Raptors head coach Nick Nurse adjusts to account for Maxey while still trying to limit Harden and Embiid. Even if there is no answer, the Sixers are staring at a potential gauntlet of high-powered opponents in future playoff rounds. The Raptors scored 88 points through three quarters without a marquee scorer and a lineup sorely lacking in technical skill. The final margin doesn’t change anything about the biggest questions the Sixers face.
Still, the Sixers performance in Game 1 at least raised the possibility that they can be the team they will need to be in order to advance to their first Eastern Conference finals of the Embiid era. Their greatest potential competitive advantage lies in the sort of scoring we saw on Saturday night. At the end of the regular season, it was fair to assume that the Sixers would need Harden to rediscover his elite isolation scoring ability in order to consistently run opponents out of the gym. Now, though, we must at least consider the fact that Maxey can be an X-Factor that makes up the difference between the offense we saw at the end of the regular season and one that cannot be stopped.