SAN ANTONIO — Doc Rivers and the 76ers can’t feel sorry for themselves.
They know the manpower issues they’re experiencing is more of a league-wide thing than a Sixers thing.
Perhaps understanding that is the only thing keeping Rivers sane under the circumstances.
His Sixers defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 115-109, Sunday night at the AT&T Center. They did so in their second straight game without five of their top seven perimeter players.
Ben Simmons has yet to play a game after requesting a trade last summer. Meanwhile, Seth Curry (left ankle soreness), Danny Green (right hip pain), Matisse Thybulle (right shoulder sprain), and Shake Milton (back contusion) are sidelined with injuries.
Curry is the starting shooting guard. Green and Thybulle have split time as the starting swingman. And Milton is the backup point guard.
Due to their absences, two-way swingman Charlies Brown Jr. got his second start. Furkan Korkmaz started at shooting guard, and Isaiah Joe was the only guard off the bench.
“It is what it is,” Rivers said. “... This is obviously tougher. Like you look at our last couple of games, just the guard play. When you have this many guards out, you are just trying to keep your offense moving.”
The biggest player on the floor helped the Sixers (27-19) overcome their absences against the Spurs (17-30).
Joel Embiid finished with 38 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists. It was his 12th consecutive road game with 30 or more points. The 7-foot-2 center began that streak with a 43-point performance at Charlotte on Dec. 6.
The four-time All-Star isn’t surprised by the streak. This is something he imagined doing.
“Because I believe in myself,” he said. “First, it’s great that we got the win, especially bouncing back from blowing the lead the other night against the Clippers. But I always believed that, especially with the progress that I’ve made offensively the last two or three years as a complete player.
“I believe that I could be the greatest, or one of the greatest scorers in the league.”
Like the Sixers, the Spurs (17-30) are dealing with personnel issues.
Zach Collins missed the game as he reconditions to return to competition. San Antonio had 11 players sidelined this season while the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Meanwhile, assistant coaches Becky Hammon, Mitch Johnson, and Darius Songaila are all away from the Spurs after a COVID-19 outbreak reached the staff.
“The fortunate thing is that it’s just basketball and we are not that important anyway,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, referring to coaches. “It’s a players’ game, and we try to keep everything organized and try to create a good environment, teach, and players go play.”
Holding onto the victory
After holding a commanding 15-point cushion in the third quarter, the Sixers’ lead dwindled to two points with 33.2 seconds left to play.
Embiid responded with a pair of foul shots on the ensuing possession to make it a 113-109 game with 14.9 seconds to play. San Antonio immediately called a timeout. The Spurs’ possession ended with Tyrese Maxey rebounding a missed three-pointer by Derrick White. After being fouled, Maxey made a pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds left to put the Sixers up six.
Maxey finished with 18 points and six assists. Nine of his points came in the fourth quarter. Tobias Harris also had 18 points as well as 11 rebounds.
Jakob Poeltl paced the Spurs with 25 points.
However, the Sixers’ near-collapse came after they surrendered a 24-point lead in Friday’s home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
After Sunday’s victory, the Sixers talked about needing to find a way to lock-in during crunch time to prevent the blown leads. But Harris looked at this victory as a step in the right direction.
“It’s hard to win in the NBA,” he said. “I don’t care, no matter what team you’re playing or the circumstances, it is hard to win basketball games in the NBA.
“So for us to come in here and get a victory, that is the step in the right direction. We were able to close it out.”
Dealing with this season’s uncertainties
Popovich and Rivers are among the league most successful and well-respected coaches.
Popovich, who has a 1,327-683 record, has the third-most wins in NBA history, and has won five NBA championships. Rivers, whose record is 1,019-723, is 10th on the all-time win list and has won one championship.
But this season is unlike any other they have experienced as coaches.
In addition to dealing with injuries, there’s the uncertainty that comes with dealing with the COVID-19 omicron variant outbreak that has sidelined players, coaches and staffers on both teams.
On occasion, coaches literally wake up and don’t have an idea who’s going to be available for that night’s game.
“There is nothing we can do about it,” Popovich said. “There is really no solution. You just have to mentally deal with it and put it out of your mind. It makes it no fun and it makes it a real odd situation, [with] players out, coaches out, staff out. You just kind of piece it together. It’s like fingers in the dike, so to speak.
“The one thing about it is it is all fair. We are all going through it. It’s not just these five teams or these 10 teams. I think you just mentally have to put that away and carry on. It’s your only choice.”
He was sidelined at one point with COVID, as were assistants Sam Cassell and Brian Adams. Another assistant coach, Dave Joerger, has been out since Nov. 13 while battling cancer. The roster had to deal with two waves of COVID outbreaks in addition to mounting injuries.
“Everyone has got stuff, the Spurs, the Clippers, every team you play every night,” Rivers said. “It’s funny, though, we coaches love to complain to each other and this year it’s funny when one starts complaining. [Clippers coach] Ty [Lue] and I were talking [after a recent game]. He’s like, ‘I’ve got Kawhi [Leonard] out [with an injury] and PG [Paul George] out [with an injury]’ and then he looked at me and said, ‘All right, I’m sorry.’ … And we started laughing.
“Every coach you talk to, it’s the same thing. It’s a combination of COVID plus injuries. Usually, it’s injuries. Now you have both.”