Playoffs

Tyrese Maxey saved the Sixers’ season with one of the toughest playoff performances ever

Tyrese Maxey saved the Sixers' season with one of the toughest playoff performances ever

NEW YORK — Tyrese Maxey could feel the pit in his gut growling, growing, deepening. He knew how bad it was, and how much worse it was about to get. He could almost reach out and touch the nightmares — the ones he wouldn’t be able to shake, the ones he’d be having for weeks. Maybe months. Maybe longer.

When you’re the kind of kid who aces every test, every mistake cuts you to the core, and there Maxey sat, a half-minute away from the end of the line, awash in slashes of the red pen. Philadelphia was down by six in the fourth quarter of Game 5 — just 28.9 seconds separating the Knicks from advancing to the second round of the 2024 NBA playoffs, and the Sixers from yet another disappointing early postseason exit to cap a season that had begun with such grand, glittering hopes.

As he had through the first four games of this knockdown, drag-out opening-round series, Maxey had, on balance, been brilliant: 34 points on 14-for-24 shooting, eight assists against two turnovers, the offensive engine the Sixers needed with Joel Embiid struggling beneath an accumulation of ailments — soreness in his surgically repaired left knee, migraines, Bell’s palsy — that had sapped the MVP’s shot-making sting.

But Maxey wasn’t thinking about any of those makes, any of those dimes, any of those hiccup-quick slaloms through layer after layer of the Knicks’ perimeter defense. All he could think about were the ones he’d gotten wrong.

“I mean, I … I'm a happy guy, but I absolutely hate losing,” Maxey said. “Especially when it's certain times — like, I missed three free throws, crucial free throws, and then I turned the ball over late. You know, people don't see me upset, but I was really upset, and I just wanted to go out there and make up for it for my teammates, man.

“I feel like I played pretty well the whole game, and for us to lose a game like that — end the season like that — I would have been crushed.”

So Maxey did the only thing you can do to end a nightmare: He woke back up, scoring seven of his career-playoff-high 46 points in that final 28.9 seconds to save the Sixers’ season.

First, Maxey took an inbounds pass in the backcourt, giving himself a runway to attack. Less than three seconds after getting the ball in his hands, he was airborne.

“We knew we had to get some threes up,” he said. “I mean, I tried to get to a spot and raise and shoot.”

Fortunately for him, and for Philadelphia, he wasn’t the only one who was airborne. Knicks center Mitchell Robinson — active for Game 5 after missing Game 4 with an ankle injury — jumped out to corral Maxey after Embiid’s screen stuck New York guard Miles McBride. The problem was, he literally jumped, giving Maxey a 7-foot bullseye to aim for.

"I mean, I’m gonna just take it like a man,” Robinson said. “I f****d up.”

Maxey connected with Robinson’s body, and the shot connected with the basket, giving Philly a chance for a four-point play. After missing those earlier free throws, Maxey wasn’t going to squander that chance, cutting New York’s lead to two.

“We fouled in a situation that we didn't want to foul in,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said.

After Knicks forward Josh Hart split a pair of free throws on the other end, the Sixers had the ball down three, and Maxey had another chance to atone. This time, Embiid set the ball screen even higher — at the half-court line. McBride got over it, but not quickly enough to get a rear-view contest on the lightning-fast Maxey, who hit the launchpad between the N and E in New York’s midcourt logo — about 10 feet away from Robinson’s would-be contest, and 35 feet away from the rim — and let it fly with the season on the line.

What Maxey was thinking as he pulled up: “Find a way to survive.”

“Our season’s on the line,” he said. “I mean, I just know that I trust my work. I trust what I’ve done all my life, and I just tried to get to a spot, raise up and knock the shot down.”

What Kelly Oubre Jr. was thinking as the shot left Maxey’s fingertips: “Godspeed.”

“You know, he works on that shot, actually,” Oubre said. “Warm-ups, you probably see him shoot that shot. It's just ultra-confidence, and the will not to lose.”

What the Knicks were thinking — well, some of them, at least: “Hey, were we supposed to be fouling Maxey before he could get a 3-pointer off?”

“In those situations, you know, you talk about what you want to do,” Thibodeau said. “They're out of timeouts and Josh has got two free throws. [The lead is] two. So you have to communicate what your decisions are. We could have done better in that situation, and we will. … We could have [fouled on that play]. That's, you know. But we'll leave it at that.”

(Knicks star Jalen Brunson’s take: “I think we’ve just got to be on the same page, all five of us. I think some of us thought that we were going to foul. We weren’t. And that’s on me — I have to be ready to communicate things like that on the court. Yeah, I’ve got to do a better job of leading.”)

What Knicks fans were thinking as the shot fell softly through the net, knotting the game at 97 with 8.1 seconds to go … well, that’s probably unprintable. As was what Maxey was saying when Brunson’s last-ditch attempt to one-up his fellow All-Star point guard was swatted away by Nicolas Batum:

“I was saying some things that my grandma probably wouldn't like, honestly,” Maxey said.

The remarks that Maxey let fly as he stomped from one end of the court at the World’s Most Famous Arena to the other might not have been suitable for work. But the shot that produced and preceded them gave the Sixers five more minutes at the office … and they made the most of it.

Especially Embiid, who had struggled with his shot and with turnovers, and had been a frequent target for punishment by Brunson in the pick-and-roll in Games 4 and 5, but who locked in late to come up with a handful of his best possessions of the night when Philly needed them most:

“He can do those things,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said of Embiid, who finished with 19 points on 7-for-19 shooting, 16 rebounds, 10 assists — his first career playoff triple-double — nine turnovers, four blocks and a steal. “Just didn't seem like that was gonna appear tonight. He obviously was not feeling great. It was a tough game for him […] I mean, he can move his feet, he can block shots, he can strip the ball. We've all seen him do that when he’s super engaged and trying to get a stop. And it was good that he finally came up and was able to dig deep.”

While Maxey made magic and Embiid dug deep, the Knicks spiraled.

After Brunson scored five quick points to open the extra session, New York scored just four points in the final 3:56 of overtime, going 1-for-8 from the floor with two turnovers. Five of those seven misses belonged to Brunson, who couldn’t replicate the success cooking in isolation that he’d found starting in Game 3. So did the two turnovers — including a backbreaker with 18.2 seconds left, where he and center Isaiah Hartenstein got their wires crossed:

“Not good judgment on my part,” said Brunson, who finished with a 40-point, six-assist encore to his 47-point, 10-assist Game 4 masterclass. “A careless turnover in overtime.”

“Tough way to lose a ball game,” Thibodeau said. “Had a lead. We’ve got to play tougher with the lead.”

On Tuesday, though, it was the Sixers who hung tougher down the stretch, led by their 23-year-old point guard — an All-Star, the league’s Most Improved Player, and now, author of one of the most legendary postseason performances in Philadelphia basketball history.

“Tonight — that fourth quarter, that last minute — what he was able to do was spectacular for us,” said Sixers forward Tobias Harris, who scored 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting with eight rebounds in his best game of the series. “He carried us, right then and there.”

Game 6 promises to be another war of attrition, just 48 hours removed from so many of the principals in this series logging monstrous, high-leverage minutes: 48 for Embiid, 50 for OG Anunoby, 51 for Brunson, 52 for Maxey, and 53 for Hart, who didn’t rest for a second on Tuesday. The Knicks — who played only seven players in Game 5, after losing eighth man Bojan Bogdanović for the rest of the season — can’t afford any letup as they look to seize a second chance to avoid a winner-take-all Game 7.

“All out,” Brunson said. “No time to pace yourself anymore.”

And neither, as Maxey knows, can the Sixers.

“I mean, honestly — I know this is, like, cliché or whatever — but I'm trying to flush the game,” he said. “I just … I know what we have to do in 48 hours. And we can't let this roll over. It’s a whole new game. And our season's back on the line again.”

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