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Doc Rivers doesn’t have an ideal hand, but he needs to figure out how to play it | David Murphy

The Heat were the latest team to expose the flaw in the Sixers' formula: An NBA team cannot live on individual effort alone.

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers during a timeout against the Heat.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers during a timeout against the Heat.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

The Sixers are missing something. Several somethings. In that regard, Doc Rivers is a victim of circumstance. Throughout the Sixers’ 101-96 loss to a skeleton Heat crew on Wednesday night, there were moments when any coach could have been forgiven for rolling his eyes skyward with a what-can-you-do shrug. He does not have a single pure point guard, or a single elite passer. His best defender is once again a player whom an opposing defense can choose to ignore. His Plan A will always be contingent on his big man giving a you-know-what.

The Sixers are not a perfect team. But it would not have taken a perfect team to avoid the fate that befell Rivers on Wednesday night. All it would have taken was a team that lived up to the name. You know, a collective. A group of players with an identity and a purpose, and a common understanding of how to navigate its surroundings. Come to think of it, a team like the one that just beat the Sixers.

» READ MORE: Best and worst from Sixers-Heat: Thybulle’s struggles, Maxey’s effort and more

As you watched the Heat sprint out to a 41-22 lead early in the second quarter, it was difficult not to conclude that the difference on the scoreboard was mostly the difference between the two guys pacing the sidelines. Erik Spoelstra’s team was playing without three of its top five minutes-getters and half of its 10-man rotation. With the trio of Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo sidelined due to injury, the Heat were missing 61.8 of the 107.1 points they were averaging per game. The Sixers? They didn’t have Georges Niang.

Yet it was the Sixers who spent the majority of the first half passing the ball tentatively around the three-point line. It was the Sixers who consistently failed to get to their spots. It was the Sixers who looked like they’d never played together, let alone played together against a 2-3 zone. The guys that never stopped moving? The ones penetrating and kicking? The ones playing strong with the ball and identifying the open man? They were Gabe Vincent, and DeWayne Dedmon, and Max Strus. Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson are talented individuals. But they were surrounded by a team.

“I didn’t like anything we did in the first half,” Rivers said. “I thought we had a stretch, more with the second group, where we opened the floor and got downhill and made some plays. But the difference is, the second group, the ball touches their hands and it’s out of their hands. The first group, early on, the ball touched someone’s hands and it stayed there for awhile.”

Two months into his second season on the bench, Rivers is fast approaching a point where he should be expected to field a team that looks more like the one that beat him on Wednesday night. There is a lot to like about the man, both as a coach and a program builder. There is also a lot of reason to wonder how much he is hamstrung by the Sixers’ chronic lack of strong ballhandling, a problem that predates Ben Simmons’ absence.

Furthermore, any assignation of blame for the Sixers’ lackluster 15-14 start must pay heavy mind to the fact that their second best all-around player is not on the court. It must also consider the fact that two-fifths of their starting five has recently returned from an illness that wreaks havoc on the human cardiovascular system, as well as the fact that those two players have combined to miss 22 games.

The Sixers are still 12-8 in games that Joel Embiid starts. That percentage is similar to what it was in 2019-20, when Rivers was not the coach. One game does not make a season, let alone a legacy.

Yet one game can warrant significant consideration, particularly when it contains echoes of previous games that have come to define the Embiid era. In losing to the Heat on Wednesday, the Sixers looked a lot like the team that lost to the Hawks in last year’s postseason, and the Celtics in two of the three prior. That is, they looked like a team that is limited by an offense that is overly reliant on individual playmaking, and not nearly enough on the sum of the whole.

This was a night where Embiid was not superhuman. It was a night when Seth Curry was nearly invisible. It was a night when Tobias Harris was pressed with the sort of physical defense that he is ill-equipped to navigate. As a result, it was a night when the Sixers’ only coherent offense came when their second-year guard took matters into his own hands.

With 10 minutes left and Marcus Garrett blanketing him from end line to end line, Tyrese Maxey somehow shed his defender, challenged the help, and hung in the air for a beautiful finish at the rim. The following possession, Maxey got to the rim and scooped in a layup that cut the Heat’s lead to 84-77.

The Sixers rallied, tying the game at 96-96 and had a chance to take the lead. They did so largely because of Maxey’s 27 points and 11-of-15 shooting, nearly all of it singular in nature. They fell short because the individual performance was not enough.

» READ MORE: Tyrese Maxey’s rapid ascension could salvage the Sixers season

“Up and down, inconsistent — I think when we [move the ball] well, we’re good,” Rivers said. “But overall I think we’ve been a very inconsistent ball movement team.”

This was an echo, and a loud one. Lost in the Simmons drama last postseason was the dirty little secret of the Sixers’ loss to the Hawks. They may have “blown” the series, but they were only in such a position because of the sort of superhuman efforts that have a short shelf life. Embiid spent much of that series playing like the best big man in NBA history. Curry spent much of it playing like his brother. It was almost enough, yes. But it’s a heck of a lot to ask.

» READ MORE: Outmanned Miami Heat hold off Sixers’ comeback, 101-96

A large part of the problem is personnel. Asked what went wrong against the Heat, Embiid pointed to missed shots. But shots are not always going to fall. It’s why zones make sense. Besides, the Sixers finished the night shooting 32% from three-point range and 44% from the field. Not great numbers. But hardly insurmountable. Whatever the case, the answer is rarely to imagine a world in which the same shots go in. It’s to take better shots.

“I don’t mind the three-point shot if it’s a good shot,” Rivers said. “I didn’t think all of them were good shots tonight. I’ll just leave it at that.”

While we will not know the totality of the Sixers’ personnel issues until the Simmons situations arrives at some form of resolution — presumably, with the addition of some collection of talent that does not include Simmons — Rivers will ultimately hold the responsibility of molding it into something approximating a championship team. If Wednesday night was any indication, he has a lot of work to do.

» READ MORE: Did Barkley demand a trade out of Philly? He says the Sixers beat him to the punch