Doc Rivers put himself in his young players’ shoes, and he knew there would be plenty of energy from them that his depleted 76ers would desperately need.
The Sixers had only seven available players for Saturday’s 115-103 loss to the Denver Nuggets at the Wells Fargo Center.
Five Sixers missed the game due to health and safety protocol. Seth Curry received a positive COVID-19 test on Thursday. Others out due to health and safety protocol were Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, and Vincent Poirier.
Ben Simmons (left knee swelling) and Joel Embiid (back soreness) were also out. Mike Scott (bruised knee) was cleared to play, but Rivers said before the game that he wouldn’t.
So this was a chance for young players to receive a boat load of minutes, and that is what happened.
“I remember [coach] Mike Fratello, my rookie year [in Atlanta], telling me, ‘Hey man, we only have eight guys, and you are going to have to play the whole game, you know, 48 minutes,’ ” Rivers recalled after Saturday’s loss. “I was like, ‘Yeah.’ ”
And that was basically the reaction of the young players on Saturday.
Sixty percent of the Sixers starting lineup – rookies Tyrese Maxey, Dakota Mathias, and Isaiah Joe – made their first NBA starts. Veterans Danny Green and Dwight Howard rounded out the starting lineup. In addition, two-way player Paul Reed saw his most extensive time, 26 minutes,11 seconds.
Like Rivers in his rookie year, the young Sixers relished the extended playing time.
“Playing as many minutes as possible is always a good feeling. So definitely today was about getting the rhythm of the game, leaning as much as possible,” said Joe, a second-round pick from Arkansas who had 13 points in 44: 51. “A lot of players definitely look forward to playing as many minutes as they can get, especially in times like today when we are players down, and teams were relying on you to hold up your end.”
Even though Rivers said young players can play all day, playing nearly 45 minutes is a strenuous exercise for anybody.
“I had my moments, but for the most part I had adrenaline going. Players and staff uplifted me the whole time,” said Joe, who hit three three-pointers in the first quarter, when the Sixers trailed, 28-26. “I am out there to play basketball. So as long as I am on the court, it is my job is to not get tired, and play as hard as possible. So that was definitely the goal today. So I don’t think I got too winded.”
Maxey, who has been playing well, scored 39 points and committed just two turnovers in 43:45. That was more points than he scored in a game during his one college season at Kentucky, where he had a career-high 27 in a 78-70 win over Louisville on Dec. 28, 2019.
“It’s bittersweet because we didn’t win, and that is always the ultimate goal,” Maxey said.
Mathias, a 25-year-old forward who played for the Texas Legends in the G League last season, had 12 points in 41:03.
“It was awesome. That is what you work for,” Mathias said. “That is the ultimate goal. To be able to do this consistently night in and night out, and you will be one of those guys that can get in the rotation and play big minutes. So it’s invaluable experience, and hopefully we can all build on that.”
The Sixers (7-3) visit the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, and Maxey is only looking ahead instead of dwelling on his stellar performance.
“It’s cool, and I’m not going to really think about it that much,” Maxey said. “It is over, and I am looking to the next game, trying to go out to Atlanta and get a W.”