The Philadelphia 76ers took care of business against the New York Knicks on Friday night. Despite some outlier poor shooting performances from Sixers starters Tobias Harris and De’Anthony Melton, who combined for just 7-19 from the field for 17 total points, the team overcame thanks to their stars.
Joel Embiid continued his MVP campaign with a 35-piece on a stellar 14-18 shooting night, while James Harden made it clear again that he was snubbed for the All-Star game with a near triple-double that included 20 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds. But Tyrese Maxey was ultimately the difference-maker last night, and his parents may have turned out to be the most important Sixers against the Knicks.
After a strong start in his new role off the bench, once he returned from a quick injury furlough, Maxey went through a slump and admitted his frustrations about being moved to the pine and his own output in the Sixers’ last six games before their victory over New York. During that stretch, he averaged just 12.3 points on 37 percent shooting from the field, and 27 from deep, and Philly went just 3-3 as a result.
Per Noah Levick of NBC Sports, his play took a toll on his mental health. “I had a rough past week, man — just rough mentally. Didn’t play well,” said Maxey.
Even without those quotes, the weight of his new role and his diminished output was obvious on his body language, and Sixers fans worried for their favorite up-and-coming young star. His struggles on and off the court were especially difficult to ignore following Philadelphia’s 99-106 loss versus their fellow East contender in the Boston Celtics, a game in which Maxey was held to just 10 points on 3-14 shooting.
But something changed in Maxey heading into the matchup against the Knicks. His head was held higher, his shoulders back and broad, and his shooting stroke was back to the feathery cast that Sixers fans know and love. He went on to drop 27 points on 9-16 shooting, including 5-8 from 3-point land, finishing a game-high +27 in his 32 minutes. New York had no answer for him.
Sixers media was eager to know what led to his change in demeanor and inspired him to such a fantastic showing, and he replied with a beautiful answer: “I had a conversation with my parents yesterday for about an hour and a half, and I kind of got all the emotions out that I needed to get out. I told (head coach Doc Rivers), and I told (assistant coach Sam Cassell) that I was human, and I had to let it out. And once I let it out, I told them I’ll be the best version of Tyrese that I can be for the rest of this year.”
Others, including his college coach, Kentucky Wildcats play-caller John Calipari, and P.J. Tucker, also offered him support and were name-dropped in his post-game interview, but it’s no surprise that the two people who raised such a fantastic young man were able to get his head right again.
The last bit of the above quote, where he relays his conversation with coaches Doc Rivers and Sam Cassell, suggests his acceptance of his new role and why it’s so important for Philadelphia’s title chances. At this current time, it’s obvious that Maxey is at his best alongside James Harden and Joel Embiid. There’s no denying that.
But with the trade deadline come and gone, it’s clear now that there’s no cavalry coming to run the reserve-unit offense. There may be a few options on the buy-out market, like John Wall or Derrick Rose, but none have the ceiling that Maxey can provide to this Sixers team if he can grow comfortable spearheading their attack behind Harden.
It’s no coincidence that Philly’s hot streak came at the same time Maxey returned to the lineup as their sixth man. When he was playing well off of the pine, the Sixers were borderline unstoppable. With his new level of acceptance, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him only improve in that role, for Philadelphia to look more and more like a title favorite, and for Tyrese Maxey to steal the Sixth Man of the Year race as a late submission.