James Harden warming up for Game 3 vs the Celtics; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

Tyrese Maxey described it as “just grown men talking”.

The young guard, who shot 4-for-16 in the Sixers’ deflating Game 3 loss at home to the Boston Celtics on Friday, said, “I think the biggest thing today was that we were real with each other,” when asked about the team’s mood during Saturday’s film session.

The loss surrendered homecourt advantage back to the Celtics. Since Philadelphia stole Game 1 in Boston, they’ve looked lost for answers, falling in Games 2 and 3 by double-digits. Suddenly, Game 4 is a must-win for the Sixers.

The sternness in the Sixers’ Camden, New Jersey practice facility was palpable, even for the small huddle of reporters waiting in one of the corners of the gym.

There was Maxey, participating in an individual workout on the nearest court. It started with catch-and-shoot threes, and then drew on a theme of Maxey’s struggles in this second-round series thus far. One development coach grabbed a bar with a bad on the end, simulating a rim-protector. Another coach provided defensive pressure on Maxey’s side as he traveled downhill.

“Just want to simulate some of [Boston’s length]. And also, just find my touch back. I felt like I lost it last game,” Maxey said. “That’s really what I was trying to do today, just find my touch back, find my rhythm back. Doc was on me, he said he felt like I started that third quarter with confidence. Then, he felt like after I missed a shot or two, then my confidence stopped and I stopped being aggressive. And then, started trying to press the issue.”

Maxey said multiple people spoke up during the film session, pointing to Paul Reed as someone who voiced his perspective on a particular possession in Game 3. There were no voices raises, and, in Maxey’s words, it was “just grown men talking”. He praised Doc Rivers for opening the floor to whoever wanted to speak their minds.

Although Rivers spoke before Maxey, he drew on the sentiment Maxey expressed — that everyone had a chance to speak up. “There was a great exchange that, even with Tyrese, there was a fun play. I said, ‘Tell me what you see.’ He said, ‘Well, I was waiting an-‘ and then, I think it was [Montrezl Harrell] or Joel was like, ‘Waiting? There’s no one in front of you. You have to go for it. You have to get to the paint,” Rivers said.

“You get your shot blocked a couple of times and you tend not to want to go in there. We have to go in there. We have to keep going in there. We have to be relentless.”

“That’s good, family has to be real with each other, family has to express themselves. They have to express their emotions that they’re feeling. You have to get that off your chest. And I think we’ve done a great job of that all year,” Maxey opined.

“But, Doc also said something that stood out to my mind. He said, ‘What is the closest the series could be after three games?’ And it’s two-one, or one-two, how ever you want to phrase it. It’s the closest it can be. Just, right now, it’s not in our favor.”

In order for the Sixers to tie the series up and get it back into their favor, someone — anyone — is going to have to step up to help Joel Embiid. It starts with James Harden, who shot 3-for-14 and committed five turnovers in Friday’s loss, and Maxey.

The Celtics are playing Maxey as a shooter, defending him high and forcing him to create from a starting point well beyond the arc. That strategy has highlighted in bright colors what we all knew about one of Maxey’s primary weaknesses on offense — he struggles to create scores for himself in the halfcourt.

“Well, one of the biggest things for me is I’ve done so much creating for myself this year. And, I’ve been pretty successful at it. It’s just knowing when to create and when to be passive. I gotta stay aggressive, but also know when to get the ball to James or get the ball to Joel to set something up or run our offense at the time,” Maxey said of whether Boston’s set defense is making him create more scores for himself. “I gotta find a healthy balance. I’m still figuring that out, I’ve been figuring it out all year and since James got back and got here last year. So, it’s going to be something I keep working at and I feel like I’m getting better at every single day.”

Maxey added that he cannot second-guess himself or defer. In his mind, he has to stay in attack mode.

As for Harden, the processes were perhaps uglier than the results were on Friday night. As the game went on, he appeared caught in the middle of decisions, overthinking basic options on the court. It felt like a Ben Simmons meltdown as the passive mindset took control, Harden staring down open shots at various spots on the floor and instead electing to pass to teammates.

But, Rivers wouldn’t characterize Harden’s disastrous play as ‘passive’. “I don’t. But, I think, with anyone, if you’re not making shots, you hesitate at times,” the head coach said. “I don’t think James hesitated much, to be honest. I just don’t think we’re playing downhill enough when we can. And then when we get them, we’re not taking them.”

There’s poor play resulting from missing shots over and over again. And then there’s not being aggressive enough and sinking the team’s offense. In Harden’s case, it was both. But, Rivers didn’t want to offer an assessment of his point guard’s play immediately following the Game 3 loss. Instead, he wanted to rewatch the game before commenting.

Given until Saturday afternoon to do so, Rivers wasn’t overly alarmed by what he saw, at least not publicly. 

“We didn’t play with enough thrust. We didn’t get into the paint enough. And we can do that. They’re helping on everybody’s drives. So, they’re bringing people and James has to make the right decision. I think, overall, he is. There was one where I’m sure people thought he could have shot the ball, but he was going to his right,” Rivers said.

“To me, him being a passer is not a bad day for us. We showed him two big shots down the stretch. Those were good shots, and I asked him, ‘You want those shots?’. He said, ‘Yeah’. I said, ‘We’re going to live with those, too. We just need you to be aggressive and take them.’ So, we’ll be fine.”

The Sixers’ first step towards being fine is tying this series up on Sunday afternoon. In order to do that, they’ll need better than a combined 29 points on 7-for-30 shooting from Harden and Maxey. Much, much better.


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