Tyrese Maxey was nobody's idea of a second star Thursday night in Utah.
With Joel Embiid (left knee lateral meniscus injury) out and Maxey having learned of his first All-Star selection a few hours before tip-off, the 23-year-old guard delivered a career-high 51 points.
In a scintillating performance, Maxey shot 7 for 9 from three-point range, made 10 of his 11 free throws, and led the Sixers to a 127-124 victory over the Jazz.
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The win snapped a four-game Sixers losing streak and improved the team to 30-17 on the season.
Tobias Harris added 28 points and seven assists. Utah's Lauri Markkanen posted 28 points and 10 rebounds.
On top of Embiid, De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine stress response), Nicolas Batum (left hamstring tightness), Marcus Morris Sr. (left foot plantar fasciitis) and Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise) all remained out.
The Sixers will meet the Nets on Saturday night in the first contest of a four-game homestand. Here are observations on Maxey's incredible game and the Sixers' win over Utah:
A refreshed, can’t-miss Maxey
Maxey returned following three games out with a left ankle sprain. He immediately looked extremely speedy and very difficult to guard.
About 30 seconds in, Maxey got an open three-point opportunity and nailed it. He scored the Sixers’ next seven points, too. Maxey danced into the paint and dropped in a floater, pump faked and steamed in for a lefty layup, and sunk each jump shot he took.
He was well within his rights to fire up a heat check.
Maxey and Harris posted every one of the Sixers’ first 26 points.
Perhaps the spell on the sidelines had a rejuvenating effect for Maxey, who’d played 42 of the Sixers’ first 43 games and averaged 37.5 minutes. His shooting percentages had dipped in the 15 games since Christmas (41.3 percent from the field, 32.2 percent from three) and fatigue was surely a factor.
Maxey’s minutes presumably won’t decrease for however long the Sixers are without Embiid, but he absolutely looks up to being the team’s go-to guy in the short term.
Sixers’ core areas more essential than ever
Utah started mixing up its defenses and playing a lot of zone in an attempt to neutralize Maxey.
That approach was not effective. Maxey knocked down all six of his three-point tries in the first half.
The Jazz spread the scoring around much more than the Sixers and got into the paint frequently against both man-to-man and zone defense. Jazz big men Walker Kessler and Kelly Olynyk totaled 15 first-half points on 6-for-6 shooting off the bench.
A Markkanen three cut Utah’s deficit to 58-57. However, the Sixers’ response was excellent. They made an 11-0 run that included a Harris driving layup, a Kelly Oubre Jr. fast-break dunk, and four Maxey free throws. Though it wasn’t flashy, the Sixers did good work during that stretch guarding the ball and cleaning up everything on the defensive glass.
While the Jazz entered the game ranked second in offensive rebounding percentage, the Sixers managed to hold their own on the glass. Both the Sixers and Jazz finished with 17 second-chance points.
The Sixers’ characteristically low-turnover night was vital as well. With Maxey leading the way, they’ve consistently been stellar this season at avoiding costly giveaways. On Embiid-less nights, that's an especially important area.
Maxey had zero of the team’s five turnovers Thursday.
Finding just enough answers down the stretch
A pull-up Maxey jumper was fittingly the first half's final bucket. He had 32 points at intermission and the Sixers led by 10.
Finally, he cooled off a bit early in the third quarter. Utah stuck with man-to-man defense, Kris Dunn was solid, and Maxey had few openings. The Jazz grabbed a first lead of the evening on a Jordan Clarkson runner.
Maxey then summoned a star's answer, scoring the Sixers' last nine points of the third quarter. He drove hard, invited contact, and recognized that his team required him to attack. Still, the Sixers were tied with Utah going into the fourth quarter.
They began the final period well. Furkan Korkmaz made a quick-release three at the tail end of the shot clock, Jaden Springer played dogged defense on Clarkson, and a variety of Sixers besides Maxey stepped up. Oubre broke an outside shooting slump with three triples in the fourth. Harris battled for a few minutes as a small-ball five. Patrick Beverley canned a late go-ahead three.
Maxey had the final word, though. Given a rare fourth-quarter chance to stare at the defense, he came off a Mo Bamba screen, took a few dribbles to his left, and drained a deep three to knot the game at 120-all with 1:40 remaining.
He hit two foul shots with 4.4 seconds to go, lifting him over the 50-point mark and giving the Sixers a three-point edge. They got through to the final buzzer for a gutsy, much-needed, Maxey-starring win.