PHILADELPHIA — In the days leading up to the start of the first-round series between the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors, the focus was on how effective James Harden would be against Toronto’s long, switching defense.
In Game 1 on Saturday night, however, it was another 76ers guard who stole the show.
Tyrese Maxey‘s 38 points, including a 21-point explosion in the third quarter, helped power Philadelphia to a 131-111 victory in front of a sell-out crowd of 20,610 at Wells Fargo Center. It was the latest emphatic reminder of just how far Maxey has progressed in his second season.
“His speed is a factor,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “We know that we have to keep using him in space. Some nights, maybe he’ll drive to pass. Tonight, it was him driving and getting to the basket and making shots.”
Maxey did plenty of that Saturday night, going 14-for-21 from the field, including 5-for-8 from 3-point range. While Maxey’s speed was apparent last year as a rookie, it’s his improved jump shot that has opened up his game. He went from a low-volume, 30-percent 3-point shooter as a rookie to a 42 percent shooter on over four 3-point attempts per game in Year 2.
On Saturday night, Maxey showed off all facets of his game, knocking down shots at the rim, tearing through Toronto’s defense to get to the rim and getting to the foul line, where he went 6-for-7.
The Sixers typically play slower than their opponents, but Maxey helped key their transition game Saturday, as Philadelphia made a concerted effort to get out and run. There was no better example of that than when Harden hit a streaking Maxey for a layup in the third quarter, like a quarterback hitting a wide receiver on a go route.
“He’s running, and you got to reward him,” Harden said. “He’s a great finisher. He makes the right play. So just trying to try to get him to keep going.”
Maxey’s performance was just one of many superlatives for Philadelphia in the series opener. Harden still didn’t have the kind of burst the 76ers would like to see in the paint, going 2-for-10 on 2-point shots, but he still finished with 22 points. Much of that was thanks to his signature stepback 3-pointers, and his finished 4-for-7 from 3-point range. Harden also had five rebounds and 14 assists to just one turnover.
Joel Embiid, meanwhile, also struggled to hit shots, going 5-for-15, but he was a monster inside, finishing with 19 points and 15 rebounds, including four offensive boards. He also had four assists and no turnovers.
“I mean, it starts really with me,” Embiid said. “Not getting frustrated. I kind of invited the double and triple teams they kept sending at me all night. Just trying to make the right play, whatever is going to get us the win. I said it. Having played against them for so long, especially the same coach, I kind of know how they think and how they want to play, especially defensively, so I think it’s all about me keep making the right plays over and over and over, and I thought tonight I was pretty good.”
Tobias Harris, meanwhile, had 26 points on 9-for-14 shooting to go along with six rebounds and six assists, and Philadelphia as a team turned a lot of the perceived advantages for Toronto entering this series on their head. Philadelphia had only four turnovers as a team compared with seven for the Raptors and held a 10-7 edge in offensive rebounds — two areas the Raptors were expected to control.
“It was a great game individually for some guys,” Harden said. “Then, for the team, things that we talked about this past week, rebounding the basketball, not turning the basketball over and giving them opportunities, I think we did a good job of that tonight.”
It was Maxey, however, who stole the show. And after taking the reins in training camp as the team’s starting point guard when Ben Simmons didn’t show up after requesting a trade, and then effortlessly slotting in next to Harden after Simmons was sent to Brooklyn, he showed again Saturday how essential he has become to Philadelphia’s title hopes.
“Tyrese is great,” 76ers forward Tobias Harris said. “He has game and he works his butt off.
“I mean, he gets it. He understands that you put the work in and great things happen for you tonight. You know, tonight was a testament to that.”