The Philadelphia 76ers didn't get off to the greatest start in the Game 6 do-or-die matchup against the Atlanta Hawks on the road Friday night. Not only did the Hawks open up the first quarter with a 29-22 run, but two Sixers starters got into immediate foul trouble as the team failed to establish a rhythm.
Four minutes into the game, Tobias Harris was off the floor after picking up two fouls. One minute later, Ben Simmons was in the same situation.
Although Sixers head coach Doc Rivers fully intended on utilizing the rookie point guard Tyrese Maxey more than he has during the entire series on Friday, he was forced to rely on him earlier than anticipated.
"We showed him a bunch of film, and I talked to him this morning," Doc Rivers said after the game on Friday. "I told him you’re going. Well, I lied because I said you’re going to be the first guy off the bench. We were going to go to a different lineup, but then the fouls got killed us early on.”
Although Matisse Thybulle was the first player to sub-in off the bench to replace Harris, Maxey's number was called shortly after. And once he made his presence felt on the floor early on, the young guard made it difficult for Rivers to take him out.
Right out of the gate, Maxey dazzled offensively in Game 6. During a six-minute shift in the first quarter, Maxey went 3-3 from the field, collecting six points. In the second quarter, he played all but 32 seconds and accounted for another three points finishing the first half with nine total points, which came second to Tobias Harris, who led the team with 12.
During the start of the second half, Rivers didn't want to rely on his bench as much. As the 76ers got off to a hot start in the third quarter, Rivers kept the entire starting five on the floor a little over 11 minutes. As a result, Maxey, who played just 57 seconds in the third, got plenty of rest before becoming a part of the Sixers' closing lineup.
For his final 10 minutes on the floor, Maxey was tested more than ever. But, as the Sixers relied on the former Kentucky guard to help steer the team to victory to keep the series alive, the young first-round pick was up for the challenge.
Although he hit on just one of his four shots from the field, Maxey was sent to the free-throw line three times. Draining 66-percent of his foul shots in the final quarter, Maxey helped the Sixers close out Game 6 with a desperate victory. Following the game, his veteran teammates showed nothing but love for him.
“He was great, defensively and offensively,” said Sixers guard Ben Simmons. “He was big. He made some tough shots. That second group really was big and really kept us in the game.”
Typically, championship-aspiring teams wouldn't rely on a low first-round pick to help keep them afloat in the playoffs, as the moment tends to be too big for players who lack that experience. But Tobias Harris didn't see any fear in the young man.
“He just had guts out there, and he had confidence,” Harris said. “The minute he stepped on that floor, he gave us that boost. He was just playing with that, basically freeness out there. He wasn’t scared of the moment, wasn’t shy at all, got to his spots, and just gave us a big boost of energy out there, and that helped us.”
All-Star Joel Embiid is usually the guy the Sixers rely on to dominate and help his team stay ahead and finish there too. However, others had to step up and get the job done as the Hawks did a decent job of containing the big man.
While Seth Curry and Tobias Harris' 24 points apiece certainly shined for the 76ers on Friday, Embiid believes that without Maxey's 16 points off the bench, Philly doesn't force a Game 7 against the Hawks.
“Tonight, a lot of credit goes to (Seth Curry), but I think without Tyrese, we don’t win that game," Embiid said. "Maxey was huge tonight. He made plays, whether it’s offensively and defensively or pushing the pace, when Ben was in foul trouble. I’m really happy for him."
Maxey's role in Sunday's Game 7 is unclear, but it's hard to imagine the Sixers move away from him now. As several bench players have struggled to get it going throughout the series and Ben Simmons' shooting woes have hurt his team over the last few games, Maxey will likely retain an important role ahead of another elimination game for the Sixers.
Justin Grasso covers the Philadelphia 76ers for Sports Illustrated. You can follow him for live updates on Twitter: @JGrasso_.