What went wrong in Tyrese Maxey’s Christmas Day clunker?
With Joel Embiid sidelined with a sprained ankle on Christmas Day and Jimmy Butler absent with a strained calf, Tyrese Maxey was lined up to receive a nice present on Christmas Day. It was an opportunity to be the best player on the court, grabbing the lion's share of the attention with a dominant night on national television as all-star voting commences.
Instead, Maxey submitted the worst offensive game of his career - 12 points on 4-for-20 shooting; not even an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5:0 could carry weight against that.
While hardly a reason to sound alarm bells, there are takeaways on the film that should serve as data points for the Sixers going forward.
Ice coverage and forcing Maxey left
Miami's game plan against Maxey can be melted down to eight words: Force Maxey left, make someone else beat you.
The way you coax a ball-handler into using a specific hand is by icing the pick-and-roll; the ball defender squares their hips to the sideline on the side of the court that the defense wants the offensive player to attack. It not only forces the ball to the weaker of the two hands, but it also gets the handler attacking against the confines of the court.
It also has the effect of funneling the ball-handler to the big protecting the rim. Given that Bam Adebayo is anchoring the defense and Embiid is unavailable to make the Heat big man think about what to do, it was a particularly apt coverage for Miami on Christmas Day:
In a vacuum, anyone on Philadelphia's side will take Maxey stepping into an open pull-up three. But, Miami was fine with that shot because Maxey has struggled with it this season.
The boomerang passing concept is a way to beat ice coverage. Let's pretend for a moment that Paul Reed is a stretch big. He gets caught in the paint and kicks out to Maxey, resetting the play. He then sets a screen for his guard, dragging Adebayo out of the paint and into the coverage.
Ideally, Maxey would see Adebayo backpedaling and flip the ball back to Reed for an open three - Reed makes the first pass, pulls out, and gets the ball back on the second pass, hence the boomerang - punishing the ice coverage. But, Reed is a screen-and-roll big with absolutely no pick-and-pop gravity. Even if Maxey does trust Reed enough to flip the rock back to him on the perimeter, Adebayo isn't remotely concerned with that shot.
Again, a Maxey pull-up three isn't a terrible shot. But, given the amount of space he had to work with - Adebayo was playing slightly below the level and the left corner was empty - you might prefer he leverage the space the Heat afforded him and attack the rim.
But, attacking Adebayo going left evidently wasn't an option.
I do think Nick Nurse holds some responsibility for plays like the one above. If you know Miami is going to treat Reed as a non-shooter for the purposes of icing side pick-and-rolls, counter that strategy by going with smaller partners in the action.
Have Kelly Oubre Jr., Tobias Harris, De'Anthony Melton, or almost anyone else set the screen for Maxey. Sure, it might not get Adebayo out of the play entirely. But, it should either get Maxey an easier matchup to attack or a real shooter to flip the ball back to when Miami ices the coverage.
If you want more evidence that Maxey wasn't comfortable taking what Miami was giving him, this play is good proof:
The Heat can't ice this because Maxey is too far towards the middle of the floor when the screen is set. But, Tyler Herro jumps the screen and squares his hips to the left sideline to make sure that Maxey can't snake the action and get back to his right.
Kevin Love, who has never been a threat to block shots and is exhibiting an uptick in foul rate this season, is the only player in Maxey's way. Duncan Robinson is in help position on the strong side, but does his damnedest to not interfere with Maxey's drive.
Even all of those elements in Maxey's favor, he opts to wrap the ball around the basket for a righty layup and misses the mark.
Selling out on off-ball teammates
Robinson's positioning in the play above is a good segue to another point: Miami was hell-bent on letting anyone else but Maxey beat them in this game.
You could see it in how they set up against off-ball players like Oubre and Melton:
Philadelphia has a good action here, bumping Caleb Martin enough on the staggered screens to get Maxey a leg's length in front of him and, more importantly, attacking with his right hand. Jaime Jaquez Jr. pays Harris respect with his help positioning. Even Adebayo eventually retreats to the basket to account for Reed's vertical spacing.
But, at the end of the day, Kyle Lowry completely selling out on Oubre to pinch the driving lane is why Maxey settles for a step-back three here.
Plays like the one above are great examples of the calamity that Maxey faced on Christmas Day. He wants to help his team so badly because he knows he's the best player they have available, but he also has absolutely no rhythm. So, he's pressing and forcing just to try to get something to go through the hoop. Some of these plays cast light on roster issues that will govern Philadelphia's decision-making as the trade deadline approaches.
But, plays like the one above and below also illustrate that Maxey must learn that missing basic passing reads is often the difference between being aggressive and pressing:
Martin dies on the Mo Bamba screen, but the Heat will live with that on this possession because Herro pinches on the driving lane. Rather than make the simple read and find Oubre for an open triple one pass away, Maxey shoots the gap and takes what amounts to a floater by the free throw line.
Look at how much Herro sells out on Oubre. If Maxey isn't pressing, it's an open triple one pass away.
What does it all mean?
I think the struggles Maxey faced on Monday are natural progressions for a lead ball-handler, especially one who is only occasionally tasked with being the best player available while also being front and center on the scouting report.
The Sixers can either bank on Maxey becoming a master of decision-making this season (because his plate isn't already full!), or they can make some personnel changes to help him in the minutes he's on the floor without Embiid.
The front office prides itself on taking the longest view in the room. Never will a single regular-season game let them get too high or too low. But, teams aspiring to make deep playoff runs are probably going to execute strategies similar to Miami's - sell out on almost everyone else in favor of shutting Maxey down.
The Sixers can punish that by targeting a stretch big to help open up those downhill lanes, or going for a high-level shooter to make teams re-consider how far they're willing to slide to help on Maxey when they're surrendering an open three just one pass away.
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