NEW YORK — Though joy seems to be Tyrese Maxey’s default mode, the 22-year-old is not perpetually happy.
Before he scored 27 points Friday night in the Sixers’ comeback win over the Knicks at Wells Fargo Center, Maxey’s recent performances off the bench had been subpar. He’d shot 2 for 11 from the floor on Jan. 30 against the Magic, 3 for 14 Wednesday against the Celtics, and looked less sure of himself than usual.
“I feel good, man,” Maxey said. “I feel better. I had a rough past week, man — just rough mentally. Didn’t play well. I had a conversation with my parents yesterday for about an hour and a half, and I kind of got all the emotions out that I needed to get out. I told (head coach Doc Rivers) and I told (assistant coach Sam Cassell) that I was human and I had to let it out. And once I let it out, I told them I’ll be the best version of Tyrese that I can be for the rest of this year.”
While Maxey gets along well with De’Anthony Melton and emphasized his gratitude to be playing again after missing 18 games with a left foot fracture, the typical NBA player wouldn’t be thrilled to slide out of the starting lineup. Maxey has mentioned several times that he’s adjusting to the role, which has featured more minutes in all-bench or bench-heavy lineups.
The Sixers value Melton’s defensive talents, but he had a difficult night Friday on both ends. He missed his first four three-point tries and struggled to guard Jalen Brunson during the Villanova product’s 20-point first quarter. The Sixers needed Maxey to bring excellent energy, and he did — including on defense. Maxey pressured Brunson effectively in the backcourt on a couple of occasions, and he was active at the top of the Sixers’ zone defense.
He picked up three steals, too. Just 61 behind Melton now.
“I was messing with Melt,” Maxey said. “I said, ‘Look, I’m De’Anthony Melton.’ But it was great. I know Coach Doc has been talking the last two games about us as a team getting into the ball and just putting pressure on guys. I just wanted to go in there, cause some type of havoc, and help defensively as much as I could.”
If he maintains that defensive standard, we imagine Rivers would be inclined to again make Maxey a regular starter.
“It’s huge,” Rivers told reporters of Maxey’s defense. “What Tyrese has to do is what he can do. What can he bring to the game defensively? I always ask him that. Well, in the backcourt, you’re 7 feet tall — that’s what I tell him — because of your speed, your pressure, you can pester the guy. Every foot you get closer to the basket, you get smaller and smaller, so try to stay out of that area. And I thought he did a good job of that tonight.”
Though positivity tends to come naturally for Maxey, he got some pregame encouragement Friday from his college coach, Kentucky’s John Calipari.
“I’m human and I want to be able to help my team as much as possible,” Maxey said. “New roles, different stuff happens. Like I said, I’m human, man. The thoughts go through your mind. Coach Cal said something to me before we played our first game of the year … he said, ‘Tyrese, let all the cluster out of your mind and go play basketball how you know how to play.’ And that’s how I felt today.
“And it was funny, he ironically texted me today and told me he believed in me, and just go out there and be Tyrese. I just appreciate that from him.”
In the Sixers’ locker room, Maxey has plenty of veterans who understand it’s impossible to feel great every day of every season.
At 22 years old, James Harden came off the Thunder’s bench (and won Sixth Man of the Year) for the 2011-12 Western Conference champions.
“Just always be confident,” Harden said. “He’s young, but he puts the work in. Obviously it’s the NBA and it’s a long season. You have bad games, you have shooting slumps, and you have times where you shoot the ball extremely well. But it all balances out. Throughout the course of the year, it all evens itself out. He got those same shots tonight and he made ‘em. It’s just about sticking with it throughout the course of the year and making shots when they count.”
You can also count PJ Tucker among those trying to nudge Maxey in the right directions.
“Honestly, I need to pick my defense up every night; I’ve got to play defense every night,” Maxey said. “That’s the only way you’re going to be able to win games. I’m just trying to bring the intensity, trying to bring the pressure, trying to pressure the navigation in pick-and-roll.
“Tuck was on me. He said, ‘Dude, with your athletic ability, you should be able to do it every single night.’ So I’m just going to go out there and try my hardest. I think the biggest thing is knowing the calls behind you, knowing your teammates are behind you, and being able to get into the ball and navigate the screen.”
That won’t always go as well as it did against the Knicks, but Maxey again had many good on-court reasons to smile Friday night.