Doc Rivers felt disrespected.
Rivers’ 76ers had just blown a 24-point, third-quarter lead en route to a horrendous 102-101 home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. It was the Sixers’ second loss in three games after coming off impressive victories over the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat on back-to-back nights.
But the Sixers (26-19) were sloppy in Friday night’s setback to the decimated and struggling Clippers (23-24). Aside from Joel Embiid’s dominant play, when it mattered most, they showed very few similarities to the team that won those back-to-back games.
So after the defeat, Rivers was asked by a reporter, “What part of this loss would you attribute to coaching?”
“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “Would you ask Pop that question? No you wouldn’t. So don’t ask me that question. I’ve earned that.”
Rivers was referencing San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has a 1,327-682 record, has the third most wins in NBA history, and has won five NBA championships. Rivers, whose record is 1,018-712, is 10th on the all-time win list and has won one championship. They’re the NBA’s only active head coaches in the Top 10.
Rivers was noticeably disturbed by the question during the rest of his 4-minute, 46-second postgame press conference.
But this wasn’t the first time this season that he took exception to a reporter’s question following a game.
Back on Dec. 28, the Sixers needed a 36-point performance from Embiid and a triple-double performance and late clutch free throws by Tobias Harris to cap a 114-109 victory over a Raptors squad compromised by COVID.
Barely beating — or losing to — undermanned teams has become a trend for a Sixers team that was expected to contend for the Eastern Conference title. Yet, when The Inquirer asked on that December night if he’s concerned that it keeps happening, Rivers didn’t want to discuss that trend, calling the question silly amongst other things.
But on Friday, the Sixers lost to his former Clippers squad, which was without perennial All-Star wings Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on a night that Embiid finished with game highs of 40 points and 13 rebounds. The Sixers will point out that they were missing Seth Curry, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, and Shake Milton. Nothing against the foursome, but Los Angeles being without two of the league’s Top 15 players was more crucial.
And this was a Clippers squad that had lost three of its last four games and six of nine. Asked what caused the Sixers to surrender that 24-point cushion, Rivers attributed it to “sloppiness.”
“I thought that one stretch where, I swear to God, I felt like we turned the ball over and took a bad shot nine straight possessions,” Rivers said of a third-quarter stretch. “They were already small. That got them out on the break. So, I thought that turned the game around. And I really thought we really lost their shooters too many times just in transition and on pick and rolls.”
Rivers said that hurt the Sixers, who he felt shouldn’t had been in that position. And he wasn’t done.
“That second group came in tonight and just, the turnovers,” Rivers said. “Over and over. And casualness. You get a 20-point lead and, against a team that can shoot the ball like that. A 20-point lead in a three-point [shooting] league means nothing. It’s five shots and it’s a game. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Actually, the Sixers had two turnovers in the third quarter, both by Embiid and they turned into just two Clipper points. One turnover came right after the Sixers had made five of their first eight shots of the quarter to take the 24-point lead. The other turnover came with the Sixers still up by 18.
Drummond turned the ball over just 14 seconds into the fourth quarter, but made up for it with a vicious block. The Sixers’ second turnover of the quarter, however, was costly. With 1 minute, 35 seconds left in the game, Embiid threw a bad pass, which was picked off by the Clippers’ Nicolas Batum, who fed Ivaca Zubac for the go-ahead basket.
In all, the Sixers had seven turnovers for the game, leading to eight Clipper points. And all seven turnovers were committed by Embiid (five) and Drummond (two).
During their struggles over the last 19 minutes of the game, the absence of a true point guard became apparent. Without direction, the Sixers were not taking good shots and poor decisions were being made. They finished the third quarter missing 11 of their last 16 shots and entered the fourth with a 10-point lead. In the fourth quarter, they couldn’t make a shot. Embiid and Harris were both 3-for-4 from the field. The rest of the team shot 1-for-11.
For the game, Sixers sharpshooters Furkan Korkmaz, Georges Niang, and Isaiah Joe combined to shoot 3-for-17 from three in a game that their team needed all three of them to step up. The trio was also a liability on defense.
Yet, they still had a chance to win.
North Philly native and Clippers forward Marcus Morris missed a pair of foul shots with his team clinging to a 102-101 lead with 9.4 seconds left.
What happened next was kind of out of Rivers’ control.
He drew up a play involving Tyrese Maxey and Embiid. However, 6-foot-3 point guard Reggie Jackson got in front of 6-8 Harris for a rebound off Morris’ second missed free throw, a scrambled ensued, and almost four seconds ran off the clock.
The Sixers were awarded the ball with 5.2 secondshaving to go full court because they were out of timeouts. The game’s final possession concluded with Tyrese Maxey dribbling the length of the court, with Jackson in pursuit and misfiring on a 14-foot floater with 0.3 second left.
“We box out, we have nine seconds,” Rivers said. “Instead, they get their hands on the ball, they make a play. Now it’s down to five seconds. There’s so many little things. If you want to call that coaching, we’ll call that coaching. But at the end of the day, it’s a game we should’ve won that we didn’t.”
He’s definitely in a tough spot due to not having the services of Ben Simmons or a suitable replacement for the three-time All-Star, who hasn’t played this season while seeking a trade.
Rivers wasn’t exactly wronged by the question, though. Maybe it could have been worded differently, but the fact is the Sixers blew a 24-point lead en route to losing to a limping team.
After losses like that, players and coaches, even the winningest ones, have to evaluate what they could have done differently.
Now, Rivers and his Sixers will look to improve when they face, get this, Popovich and the Spurs (17-29) Sunday in San Antonio. Maybe we’ll have a question or two for Pop.