There are a lot of potential angles to talk about from last night's thrilling 110-102 win over the East-leading Brooklyn Nets, which was truly one of the team's best performances of the season, on both ends of the court. From the (respectful) trash talk between Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant to end the game, to Matisse Thybulle igniting the Sixers' defense (and transition game) against an almost impossibly tough foe, to Joel Embiid's continued dominance of, well, everyone in his path, the Sixers closed out 2021 in fashion.
The angle that interests me the most is the pairing of Embiid and Maxey, who combined for 59 points on 21-41 shooting to outduel James Harden, Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets. Specifically, it's that 50 of those 59 points came while Embiid and Maxey were on the court together, with Embiid scoring all but three of his points while on the floor with the Sixers' speedy point guard, and Maxey scoring 19 of his 25 in the 31 minutes the two shared the floor.
That hasn't always been the case. In fact, for much of the season, it hasn't. Heading into last night's game Maxey was averaging just 17.8 points per 100 possessions while on the floor with Embiid, compared 29.8 points per 100 when Maxey played while Embiid was on the bench. If you go to Maxey's game log page on Basketball-Reference and sort by Game Score, seven of Maxey's 10 best performances so far this season have come in games that Embiid has missed (reminder: Embiid has played in 24, missed 11).
Some of that is natural. Everybody is going to see their touches and their shot attempts decrease when Embiid is cooking. But it's also true that Embiid needs more help offensively if the Sixers are going to be (or even develop into) legitimate threats in the Eastern Conference, and it's become increasingly clear that Tobias Harris ain't it. They need someone to step into that larger role, and Maxey is the only one on the roster with the skill set and talent to do so, even if his birth certificate suggests he may not (or, at least, should not) be ready.
Prior to last night, Joel Embiid had a 32% usage rate in lineups where he shared the floor with Maxey and Harris, with Harris at 21.8% and Maxey all the way down at 17.3%. That trio has averaged 112.4 points per 100 possessions on the floor together, which is slightly above average, but not great. Given that most of those minutes come with Seth Curry on the floor as well, the defense of that group is never going to carry them. They need the offense to be great. They need Maxey to be more assertive.
I saw some chatter last night that it was Doc Rivers' absence that allowed Maxey to step into a larger role and flourish offensively, and like much of the discussion around coaches in the NBA, that feels awfully reductive. I can certainly get behind the notion that Rivers needs to do more to empower the young Maxey, and to worry far less about making sure a C- offensive option in Tobias Harris gets his touches. I'd also like to see Maxey's number called a bit more at the top of the key, rather than flipping the ball to Joel and running to the corner, or to the dunker spot. All of those are fair suggestions.
But Maxey didn't have a great game last night because he controlled the ball at the top of the key. Dan Burke didn't make sweeping changes to their offense mere hours after Rivers entered health and safety protocols.