The second-round of the 2023 NBA playoffs is almost set to tipoff. The Philadelphia 76ers were the first ones to punch their ticket to the Conference Semifinals. The Boston Celtics took a little bit longer to get there but did so nonetheless, earning a highly anticipated matchup with Philly.
It’s fitting that the Sixers’ most successful and important season of the Joel Embiid era will require them to get past the rival that has always gotten the best of them.
The biggest X-factor for the Sixers is obviously Embiid’s injury status. There is hope that his LCL sprain will subside well enough for the MVP favorite to play in Game 1, though that outlook is purely the most optimistic one, not necessarily the most realistic. Having 10 days of rest in between the game he got injured and the first game of this series certainly helps, but hardly guarantees he’ll be ready.
As the Sixers prepare to face the Celtics, the need for one particular player on Philly’s side to step up will be highlighted. Embiid’s health is an obviously important factor. James Harden was the main X-factor for the first round and all of those points stand for the next series.
On top of that, Tyrese Maxey has to play consistently great basketball for the Sixers to advance.
Sixers’ X-factor vs. Celtics: Tyrese Maxey
Across four games against the Celtics this season, Maxey’s numbers look like this: 10.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists on shooting splits of 35.4 percent overall and 21.4 percent from deep. Woof. Simply put, he has some demons to exercise against Boston.
Philly has shown some promise against Boston this season, but many are understandably picking against them in this series. The Sixers’ only win against the Celtics in the regular season came with Jaylen Brown out, while one of Boston’s victories came without most of its starting lineup.
Given Embiid’s injury and Harden’s continued postseason inconsistency, Maxey shaking off those woeful showings in the regular season is the most dependable route for the Sixers to take when looking to beat Boston.
Embiid will be bombarded with defenders as the Celtics look to stop one of the sport’s most unstoppable scorers. Harden at least looked capable of getting into the paint and should be able to draw defenders’ attention, too. The Sixers’ most important and obvious counter is to fire away from deep after the stars draw in the defense. No other Philly player can light it up from downtown off the catch like Maxey.
(The one exception is Georges Niang, who seems to be on the fringes of the rotation right now, especially with a matchup against a team that previously exposed him repeatedly. Should he play, Niang’s shooting could also be a massive boost.)
With a 45.5 percent clip on catch-and-shoot triples and a 51 percent clip on corner threes, Maxey is the ideal type of shooter to put next to Embiid and Harden. The Sixers will need Maxey to get these easy looks to go often. Especially with Embiid hobbled, he has to either drag the help defense further away from him or punish Boston each time they let him get a clean look.
One adjustment Maxey and the Sixers can make is putting him in the corners more often. He only shot seven of his 30 three-point attempts of the first round from the corners despite being a sensational shooter from that location. Putting him in the corner opposite the side of the court Harden is on would give the defense more ground to urgently cover.
More space will be helpful for Maxey after seeing how flustered he can get by having no space at the rim. In the Embiid-less Game 4 in the first round against the Brooklyn Nets, Maxey stayed aggressive but forced up a ton of looks in the paint. Only one of his shots within a few feet of the rim was a make in a half-court setting and he shot just three free throws. He hasn’t been consistently able to make something out of nothing on his contested drives. If there was ever a time to change that, it’s now.
While many observers have come to know Maxey for his sensational speed and shooting, it’s on the other end of the court where he can really make things happen. His pressure at the point of attack has made him a valuable contributor on that end.
The Celtics offense has been elite this season. With stars like Tatum and Brown to lead the way, playmakers and shooters like Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Al Horford and a solid lob threat in Robert Williams III, there are so many ways Boston can punish the Sixers.
The biggest thing Philadelphia can do to stop them is to just deny the Celtics the chance to get into the sets and pace they want to get into. That’s where Maxey comes in. Doc Rivers helped unlock Maxey’s defensive value by getting him to play higher up, pressuring ball-handlers before they could use any size advantage against the slim, small guard. If his shot isn’t falling, this is the primary way he can still be a positive contributor for Philly.
The Celtics have countered Embiid’s rim protection by playing five shooters on the floor. Should they go back to that strategy, defense at the point of attack would be extra important. Maxey’s quickness will come in handy to deny or at least hold off guys from getting access to the paint. There are a lot of ways for the budding star to make an imprint on this series. He simply must find a way(s) to make it happen for the Sixers to beat the Celtics.
Embiid has been vocal about how the Sixers need Maxey at his best in order to reach their potential. There’s no better time for Maxey to dig deep and play the best basketball of his life as Philly looks to advance to the conference finals.
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