With 76ers’ season hanging in balance, Seth Curry and Tyrese Maxey emerge as unlikely Game 6 heroes

The 76ers started Friday’s win-or-go-home Game 6 against the Hawks looking very much like a team that had blown a 26-point lead in its previous outing. Philadelphia appeared to be shell-shocked as Atlanta built a 20-8 lead in the first quarter.

So, with six minutes left in the opening period and the Hawks on the verge of breaking the game wide open, who flew in and saved the Sixers? Seth Curry and Tyrese Maxey, of course. The two guards combined to score Philly’s final 14 points of the first quarter, cutting the deficit to a more manageable seven points.

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“The lead the other night was just such a tough loss. For them to jump on us — which, honestly, I anticipated, you knew they were going to come out sky high — I just really believed if we could weather the storm, a lot of energy would be spent,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought from that point on we controlled the game.”

Both Curry (24 points, 8-of-14 shooting) and Maxey (16 points, seven rebounds off the bench) stepped up again and again in Game 6, allowing the 76ers to secure a 104-99 win at a packed State Farm Arena and send the series back to Philadelphia. With All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons combining for just 28 points on 11-of-30 shooting from the field and dealing with early foul trouble, it was the role players who made star turns with the season on the line.

“[Curry has] been huge,” Embiid said. “His shot-making ability has been making a lot of things happen, opening the floor for everybody else. Like I said, he’s been huge. . . . Without Tyrese, we also don’t win that game. Maxey was huge tonight. He made plays, whether it’s offensively or defensively, pushing the pace when Ben was in foul trouble. I’m really happy for him.”

After helping to keep the 76ers in striking distance, Curry led the most important run of the game. He scored or assisted on every point of a 14-0 spurt to start the third quarter, giving Philly a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

Maxey, a 2020 first-round pick out of Kentucky, similarly came up big in the second half, operating as the lead ball handler when the threat of Atlanta’s “Hack-A-Ben” strategy loomed large. Maxey also challenged Trae Young on defense, and while he didn’t win every battle, he did force the Hawks star (34 points, 13-of-30 shooting) to work on nearly every possession. 

“I actually thought, other than Ben, Tyrese did the best job on Trae because of his speed,” Rivers said. “And that was one of the things we talked about. The kid, I keep talking about him, he has struggled in a lot of ways defensively this year, but he keeps working. He keeps watching film with [assistant coach] Sam [Cassell]. And I thought tonight was probably . . . his single best defensive night of the season for him. Just really proud of him.”

Tobias Harris, who bounced back from a miserable Game 5 with 24 points in the victory, credited Maxey for providing a boost “the minute he checked in the game.”

“He just played with that, basically, freeness out there,” Harris said. “He wasn’t scared of the moment, wasn’t shy at all, got to his spots, just gave us that big boost of energy out there. That helped us. He was the spark of the game for us as a whole.”

As well as both Curry and Maxey performed, the Sixers will need Embiid and Simmons to contribute much more in the series finale than they did in Game 6. In the playoffs, though, even the most top-heavy teams need unlikely heroes to provide that “big boost.”

On Friday night, it was Curry and Maxey who donned the capes.

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