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Tyrese Maxey could be the inflection point of the Eastern Conference semifinals

The second-round matchup may hinge on the play of Philadelphia’s young, burgeoning star guard.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Tyrese Maxey is a very good player, one of the most promising prospects in the NBA. Drafted to a Philadelphia 76ers franchise with title hopes, the young guard has improved drastically every year he’s played in the NBA.

Now, at just 22-and-change-years-old, he’s unquestionably the third-best player on a Sixers team with very realistic hopes of title contention this season. He’s a 20 PPG scorer, a 43% three-point shooter on high volume and one of the all-around brightest young talents in the NBA.

With the Milwaukee Bucks having suffered a shocking upset at the hands of Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, both of the presumptive favorites to claim the Eastern Conference are facing one another in the semifinals. One of the NBA’s more heated rivalries has returned to the forefront: the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are facing each other in the postseason again.

That’s when the rub on Maxey comes into play: against the Celtics, he’s been dreadful.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

For all his talent, Maxey just hasn’t been able to crack this matchup. He’s played ten regular season games against Boston in his career, the second-most he’s played against any team. In those ten games, he’s shot just 34% from the field and 32% from three-point range, good for a true shooting percentage of just 42% — by far his worst against any NBA team. This season, in what has otherwise been his breakout year, that true shooting percentage has actually dropped, cratering to an even 40% in the team’s four regular season contests.

Put it this way: Maxey scored in single-digits just seven times in 60 regular season games this year. One of those was his return from a foot fracture that held him out of 18 games, which saw him play just 18 minutes. Of the other six, three of them came against the Celtics, including his two lowest-scoring outputs of the season (six points on 3-of-14 shooting in February and five points on 2-of-8 in April). That’s a staggering drop in output for bona fide 20 points per night scorer.

Ten games make for an ink-blot test of a sample size for a player this young. Through nearly 200 regular season games, Maxey’s career numbers tell us he’s right there among the best young combo guards in basketball, in line with the likes of Jordan Poole, Tyler Herro or Anfernee Simons — quite possibly better. Ten games is too small a sample size to suggest he’s not that caliber of player, but it’s enough to indicate that the Celtics are a problem matchup for him.

Boston Celtics Vs Philadelphia 76ers

What is it about the Celtics that they’ve been able to frustrate Maxey to this extent? One of the deepest defensive backcourts in basketball certainly helps. This Boston defense may be vulnerable to the pick-and-roll, as witnessed by dynamic performances from maestro guards Trae Young and James Harden thus far this postseason, but Maxey isn’t the type of playmaker to take advantage of those weaknesses. He’s a scorer first, and not a particularly advanced ball-handler, eliminating a bit of the calculus involved with defending players like Young and Harden, superstar-level passers and dribblers.

Watching through Maxey’s shot attempts against the Celtics this regular season, it’s clear that he’s been most effective driving to the basket. Per Basketball Reference, he shot 16-of-21 from within 10 feet of the basket, and that includes a sequence of three consecutive missed tip-ins in the February 8 matchup that makes those numbers look worse, such as it is. Maxey shines when the afterburners come on; you can probably count the number of guards who can truly match him athletically on one hand, and the Celtics don’t have any. When he’s seen daylight, he’s taken advantage.

The further he’s gotten away from the basket, though, the more he’s struggled. He doesn’t seem to have many options when the Celtics collapse and cut off his driving lanes, and his jumper isn’t doing him any favors. He’s tried to get to pull-ups and fadeaways from the midrange, but the Celtics’ general length has caused problems. These haven’t been very productive looks, as evidenced by a 6-of-18 mark between 10-feet and the three-point line.

Then there’s the three-point shot, which seems to be the biggest anomaly in Maxey’s play against the Celtics — and his most direct avenue for improvement. A 43% shooter on high volume (6.2 3PA/G) for the season, Maxey made just three of his 14 three-point attempts across the four regular games. Your mileage will vary here. Maxey fired up a lot of looks off the dribble against the Boston defense — he’s not intimidated by difficulty or distance. A number of them feel like well-earned bricks.

There are open looks in there, too, though, and there’s a lot of tape to suggest he’s capable of better. The Celtics have done a good job making him feel uncomfortable from range, but he’s not going to shoot below 30% from deep forever. Some of these shots should be points on the board.

Also something of an ink blot test: Maxey’s performance in Game 1 of the semifinals. On one hand, he scored 26 points, his best output of the season against the Celtics. He also snared four steals against a careless Boston offense, including a dagger pick-six on a heads-up play with 33 seconds remaining.

On the flip side, it took him 24 shots to compile that scoring total. If the three-point shot is going to equalize, it hasn’t yet — he was just 2-of-9 from deep.

It couldn’t have been a more perfect game to complement everything we’ve discussed today. Maxey was phenomenally successful at attacking the rim and running in transition, but couldn’t find a rhythm with his jumper, making just three shots from further out than the free throw line. The increased volume was a surprise, with his 24 shot attempts tying for his third-most of the season to this point, but it’s not likely to maintain once Joel Embiid returns to the Philly lineup.

The most important qualifier to all of this may be that, ultimately, the regular season only counts for so much. This is Tyrese Maxey’s first postseason meeting with the Boston Celtics; we’re going to see his sample size against them increase drastically, and in high-stakes fashion. The chess match begins here in earnest. Can the Celtics continue to hold the upper hand? The answer just might have consequences for the Eastern Conference postseason landscape.

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