Inside the rise of “Fourth Quarter Maxey”
It started with a conversation in the back of a bus.
A rookie Tyrese Maxey wasn't in a good head space. Veteran forward Tobias Harris sensed that the youngster needed a pep talk.
"He told me on the bus. I wasn't playing that much. I was kind of upset, kind of down on myself. And he kind of just pulled me to the back of the bus and had a 15-20-minute conversation with me about how 'your time will come, be patient'," Maxey explained after Friday's victory over the Toronto Raptors.
"It did, and I just really do appreciate him. He knows that anything I can do for him - which is not a lot - I always try to do that for him. You know, keep his energy high because he always keeps mine high. So, I appreciate him."
Harris remembers being the veteran to help calm the storm brewing in Maxey's head.
"Throughout an NBA career, especially Tyrese - he's gonna have a career that he'll look back on one day and be extremely proud about. But, there's certain moments as a young player you always remember."
For Harris, it was a night out in Milwaukee with Drew Gooden when the current Sixers forward was a young buck stuck in his own head.
"He's a young guy, new to the NBA. I think he's, what, came in at 18 or 19 years old. It's kind of the exact same words. I told him, 'You're gonna be good. Just take your time, be patient with this whole evolution of you as an NBA player. Know that it takes time, but you're gonna be a hell of a player'. I think moments like that, it means a lot that that was a moment for him in his career. As a player, when I came in, I was pretty much the same age as him. You know, you never forget those type of moments. You don't forget the conversations, you don't forget where it was. I don't forget that conversation, as well, having it with him."
Like most of his shots that season, Harris nailed it. Fast forward to December of 2023, and Maxey has answered the call to be the second best player on a contending team by putting forth by far the best season of his young career.
The Sixers are 20-8, and outscoring opponents by a league-best margin of 12.3 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter, according to NBA.com. Maxey leads the team in fourth-quarter minutes played.
He's second in the NBA, minimum 15 games played, in points per fourth quarter. His 59-percent effective field goal and 65-percent true shooting in the fourth quarter both rank near the very top of the league.
Not only has he risen to the big-picture challenge posed by the Sixers - take on the highest usage of your career, do it efficiently, and be just as good at all the things you were already good at - but he's also been up to the task in high-leverage moments on a night-to-night basis.
There are a handful of ways in which Maxey inflicts damage in the game's ultimate quarter.
Philadelphia is second amongst teams that are above .500 in percentage of fourth-quarter points that come off of fast breaks. Those moments can be great opportunities for Maxey to leverage his intangible gifts. But, if the ball is not in his hands as the Sixers push up the court, his shooting range off the catch is absolutely lethal:
Maxey is shooting 51.6 percent on 3.4 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game this season, according to NBA.com. That is the best accuracy in the league amongst players who have registered at least 20 games and at least three three-point attempts per game.
He isn't just happy to fire off of a sprint in transition. Maxey is doing the leg work to get open in the halfcourt, as well:
If that motion - a give-and-go DHO to get away from trouble and relocate for an open three - looks familiar, it's because you've seen something similar before:
Defenses are rightfully so afraid of getting burned by Maxey's speed, that they're implementing zone defensive schemes to protect against dribble penetration. But, Maxey is feasting when they're a little too slow to rotate or too short at the top of the zone:
Fast and furious
Maxey has his moments of sizzling pull-up shooting against switches, but he's not a good pull-up shooter from deep yet. But, wise beyond his years, he's not forcing the issue on those shots. He's getting back to his physical gifts if he feels he has a mismatch or a defender out of position.
At the end of the day, Maxey's speed is world-class. As good a shooter as he is, the engines in his legs are his greatest gift. Just because he knows he can hit from outside doesn't mean he lets himself neglect his speed.
Whether it's Joel Embiid or Paul Reed featured in the lineup, the Sixers run a lot of Pistol action. It usually flows into a high pick-and-roll to get Maxey charging downhill. The interior defense has to decide whether to lift to stop the ball or to meet him at the rim. But, sometimes, Maxey's speed, craft, and evolving shiftiness is too much for even the best defensive anchors:
Maxey doesn't need to be spoon-fed the driving lane to find that first step and get downhill, though. He can create the path himself, taking the angles offered by out-of-position defenders and accelerating without warning:
Jaden McDaniels has established himself as one of the premier defensive wings in the NBA. Anthony Edwards is quickly becoming one of the best on-ball pests in the league. Edwards gets beat, but then tries to funnel Maxey right to McDaniels. Maxey takes a little shove in the back from Edwards before colliding with McDaniels in the air, and still gets the bucket through the harm. Sensational display of upper-body strength and control at the rim.
Change of pace and first step
Maxey's straight-line, full acceleration speed gets its rightful praise. But, he's been much better at manipulating tempo this season. Maxey is learning when to sit in roaming speed, when to speed up, and when to slow down. Not only that, he's learning how to control the pace with which he reaches those speeds so as to not allow windows of opportunity to close. He's enjoying the fruits of that manipulation:
Transition Maxey is a whole 'nother animal. All it takes is him going from roaming speed to a hesitation and then punching the gas to burn Gary Trent Jr.
The advantages of that rapid change of pace aren't limited to the open court. Maxey is absolutely eviscerating ball-pressurers with low centers of gravity by going from less-than-roaming to full speed in one step. Dennis Schroder can attest:
His burst is such a weapon that defenses are sometimes willing to neglect Embiid - the reigning league MVP and current favorite to win this season's honor - in favor of addressing the pressure Maxey puts on the rim just by turning the corner with his mind made up:
While generally not a shot you want as a governing body of your volume, the floater is a great weapon for players of Maxey's size and craft when they feel the walls closing in on the paint. Maxey is shooting 52.3 percent on floaters this season, according to Synergy. His efficiency ranks in the 72nd percentile of all NBA players.
In fourth quarters this season, it's represented a culmination of both his driving and perimeter games. If defenses apply high pressure and send Maxey towards help in the paint, he's getting that look often. If they go zone to limit his dribble penetration and the rotation isn't high enough when the ball swings his way, all it takes is a shot fake to get Maxey cracking the paint. From there, it's up to him - does he have enough room to get all the way in, or does he have to stop somewhere in the paint?
Keeping his eyes open
Every team wants that guy who will demand the ball in crunch time. But, being a pure scorer with eyes set on the basket isn't necessarily a good thing all the time. Being that intent on calling your own number breeds predictability, which makes the defense's task much easier.
As great a fourth-quarter scorer as Maxey has been this season, he's not forcing his volume. Defenses are trapping him on pick-and-rolls with Paul Reed. He's reacting appropriately:
Maxey is showing trust in his less-featured teammates, still willing to make that pass even if there isn't an immediately obvious action for them to take. Toronto threw two at Maxey out of a pick-and-roll bred from Pistol action on Friday. He simply made the right play, hitting Reed as he opened out of the screen and setting him up to attack the cup:
Of course, the decision is a lot easier when his partner is Embiid. Their two-man chemistry is sensational, and the pocket pass to Batman as he rolls to the free throw line is easy money for Robin:
You have to be some kind of weapon for defenses to willingly concede an open long two to Embiid - who is shooting an excellent 54 percent on them - if it means keeping you at bay.
Maxey doesn't check out when the ball isn't in his hands, either. He recognizes that the minutes without Embiid are his responsibility. While it's his job to make the right reads when the ball is in his hands, it doesn't mean he's free to coast when he isn't governing the play. Just because you're off the ball doesn't mean you can't help your teammates:
As much as Maxey's belief in himself and trust in the unseen work drive his ascension to stardom, Embiid's belief in his running mate is an immensely important factor in all of this. You can often see Embiid catch the ball and motion to Maxey to come retrieve it from him. The face of the franchise fully trusts Maxey; no moment is too big for him to look to the young guard. And if Embiid believes in him, Maxey has no choice but to believe in himself.
"Man, he's a growing superstar. We were talking yesterday. I was talking about ‘Fourth Quarter Maxey’. The last two games, he’s been phenomenal. He stepped up, made a lot of big plays," Robert Covington said in November.
"That’s what he's gonna have to do. He has the ball in his hands. I told him, ‘It's your role. That’s your position now'. You take on that challenge, and he's doing phenomenal."
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