SALT LAKE CITY — Tyrese Maxey sat in his hotel room Thursday evening, hours before he cooked the Utah Jazz and hours before his Philadelphia 76ers won a game they had to have. During the marathon that is the NBA’s regular season, you seldom have a must-win scenario. But the Sixers entered Utah on a four-game losing streak and needed a positive result if for nothing else to bring good vibes back to the locker room during a difficult and frustrating road trip.
On this night, Maxey reached for his phone and saw two people rapid-fire calling him: His mother, Denyse, and Joel Embiid, his superstar center. He tried ignoring both until Charles Barkley opened the envelope on TNT with the news that would justify the hours of work, Maxey’s winding road to the league and an even curvier road to becoming an NBA centerpiece.
For the first time, he was an All-Star.
“I was just so nervous watching Charles open that envelope,” Maxey said. “And then I finally answered my phone, and it was Joel screaming congrats. It was definitely a great moment.”
That Maxey went out and scored a career-high 51 points at Delta Center in a 127-124 win over the Jazz further cemented how far he has come as a player in a short time. That he lasted until the 21st pick of his draft, that he had to learn and hone his craft with Embiid and in the shadows of James Harden, and that he’s emerged as a balanced and explosive offensive player who can demolish opposing defenses from three levels, those are the attributes the 76ers are going to need to save their season.
51 PTS | 7-9 3PT | 63% FG
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) February 2, 2024
Embiid is out with a meniscus injury in his left knee, as was reported earlier on Thursday. He is definitely out through the weekend. There is a decent chance he’s out for longer. And now, the Sixers are in an Eastern Conference where the landscape has significantly changed over the last three weeks. For much of the season, the 76ers, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks formed a formidable triumvirate at the top. And, of course, you could never count out the Miami Heat.
But now, the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers have crashed the party, and not in a superficial way like last season. Both look as if they have the staying power to challenge the top of the conference in a series. As of Friday morning, the Knicks are in the East’s third spot and a half game out of second. The Cavaliers are fourth and a half game out of third. Both look significantly improved from last season.
For however long Embiid is sidelined, the Sixers’ mandate has to be to keep pace. The good news? It would take a real slide to fall below the fifth spot, where the Sixers are now, a half game behind Cleveland. The bad news? The fifth spot carries an almost automatic date with the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs.
Even with that threshold being months away, these are the games that will determine Philadelphia’s fate in the standings. And now that it appears the Sixers (30-17) are going to have to navigate a chunk of the season without their MVP center, there will be extra responsibility on Maxey’s shoulders as Philly moves forward.
“I think a big key is that we have to get healthy outside of Joel,” Sixers coach Nick Nurse said. “And we are going to get some guys back in time. But we have to play with a lot of toughness. We have to show a lot of fight, and we are going to have to grind out a lot of these games. We’re going to be capable, but we are obviously going to have to get guys to step up.
“A lot of offense is going to go through Tyrese and Tobias (Harris). We now have to make sure that Kelly (Oubre) is involved in the offense. We need to get him into that 16-20 points per game range. So, it’s going to be a process with us. We’re going to have to make sure that we do the right things on both ends of the floor.”
Thursday’s win over the Jazz provides a blueprint on what the Sixers need to do to win games without Embiid. Maxey isn’t going to score 51 points every night, because only the late, great Wilt Chamberlain has averaged as many as 50 points per game during an NBA season. But Maxey can emulate his offensive aggression. He can get into the paint at will, have gravity and find open shooters when defenses pay him significant attention.
For that to work, however, Harris has to re-engage as a second option, when he’s been a third option for most of this season. He scored 28 big points Thursday against the Jazz, consistently getting to his favorite spots on the floor, rising and making shots over Utah’s defense. Offensively, Harris has always been one of those Swiss-Army-knife kind of guys who can adjust his offense to the personnel around him. For however long Embiid is out, Harris needs to be more aggressive.
A few weeks ago, when the Sixers defeated the Denver Nuggets, Harris carried a barren Philadelphia lineup at the beginning of the fourth quarter that provided a bridge to Philly’s closing lineup that was able to put the game away. In Denver’s news conference after, Nuggets coach Michael Malone acknowledged as much. Harris is capable, as he has always been. Now, it will be incumbent on him to be around a 20-point scorer nightly.
Getting healthier is going to be important too. The Sixers expect De’Anthony Melton and Nic Batum to return soon from injuries. Forward Marcus Morris Sr. has been nursing a foot injury as well. Those are key veterans who know how to play, know how to blend and can defend and make shots. Even without Embiid, the Sixers are a talented group. But now, Maxey has to lead.
That will be the biggest challenge of his career. But it’s a challenge he’s ready to try and meet.
(Photo of Tyrese Maxey: Alex Goodlett / Getty Images)