Tyrese Maxey exploded onto the scene this season and showed in the NBA Playoffs that he has the capability to be an elite point guard in this league for a long time to come.
He was completely unfazed by the big stage, dropping 38 points on his first postseason start against the Toronto Raptors and his energetic, pacey style provided a different emphasis throughout the season for a Philadelphia offense which primarily ran through Joel Embiid.
Embiid was the NBA scoring champion for the current campaign, finished second in MVP voting and was outstanding all season long, averaging a career-best 30.6 points in 68 games. The 7-footer from Cameroon also averaged 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists in helping Philadelphia reach the Eastern Conference Semi-finals for the second straight year.
But by the time the first-round series against Toronto was over, Embiid had suffered an orbital fracture to the face and was having to play in a mask, as well as struggling through separate injuries to both hands during the postseason – a sprained right thumb and an injury to his left index finger.
The 76ers were subsequently knocked out of the playoffs by the Miami Heat but Maxey believes a healthy Embiid could have guided the Sixers to the Eastern Conference title.
Maxey spoke exclusively to Sky Sports during the NBA Finals media availability and when asked by Sky Sports pundit Mo Mooncey how far he reckons they could have gone had it not been for the injury misfortune that befell Philly’s star player, the 21-year-old was unequivocal.
“I honestly don’t think I’d be sitting here talking to you right now,” Maxey said. “I think I’d be in the game tonight. But it happens, injuries happen, and you have to build to overcome them. And it was hard for us to overcome it.
“But I think [once] James (Harden) comes back and we have a full training camp and a full season, I think the sky’s the limit for our team.”
Even if he’s not competing in the NBA Finals this year, Maxey is loving the match-up between the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, currently tied 1-1 as the series heads to Boston this week.
“As a fan, an NBA fan, I want it to go to seven (games) as I don’t want basketball to go away yet,” he said. “We’ll have to take that long break without any basketball. So I hope it goes seven.
“Boston is so unique, with how they can switch one-through-five, and every guy can guard the ball. You can’t really find any mismatches. Their wingspan, they’re so athletic and the length is second-to-none so it’s hard to score on them. But it’s also extremely hard to stop Golden State so they’re like neck and neck. These were the two best teams this year. That’s why they’re the finalists.”
Maxey has faced both Marcus Smart and Stephen Curry this season and is fascinated to see the battle continue to play out between two very different points guards. In Smart, you have a defensive bulldog who is the beating heart and soul of the Celtics team and in Curry you have the best shooter in history, a perpetually moving blur on court persistently popping up to create problems for defenders.
But just how do you stop the guy who has averaged 31.5 points in Game 1 and 2 so far – even if you are the Defensive Player of the Year?
“[Smart] brings physicality,” Maxey said. “He brings physicality and a competitive spirit, competitive nature. I think his biggest attribute to the team and to this game is his competitive spirit and competitive nature. He knows how to read guys’ tendencies, of course, but he puts so much effort and so much heart into stopping who he’s guarding and slowing them down. That eventually helps him out.”
Smart did manage to find a way to slow Curry down in the second quarter of Game 1, shutting him out in the second frame after he exploded for 21 points in the first. If Smart and Boston can find a way to do that more often and stop him getting into his playmaking rhythm, as he did in Game 2, then that will help their chances massively in the TD Garden.
Game 2 also saw Jordan Poole make a big impact, with his massive half-court buzzer-beater to end the third quarter, the best single play of this year’s finals so far.
The 76ers guard chatted to Poole, prior to the Warriors guard making debut on basketball’s biggest stage and Maxey believes that with young talent such as him and Celtics leading pair Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown strutting their stuff in the NBA Finals, the future of the league is looking good.
“Those guys are prepared for the moment,” Maxey said. “Talking to Jordan Poole [before Game 1], he said something that I’ve always said, ‘When you put the time in, you put the preparation in – you’re nervous just because of the jitters, and you’re so excited to be in the moment – but you prepare for the moment. So he’s ready.
“I think the game is in great hands. We have young guys playing on the Celtics, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Those guys are pretty young as well. So the league is in really good hands.”