Doc Rivers and his coaching staff are doing a hell of a job, and he knows it.
In the eight games since the All-Star break, three of the team’s starters have missed at least three games and the regular starting lineup has yet to play together. Still, after the 108-100 win at Golden State on Tuesday night, the team has gone 7-1 and retained the top spot in the Eastern Conference at 31-13 with 28 games remaining. The one loss came to the Bucks, without MVP favorite Joel Embiid, in overtime.
Embiid has missed seven of the eight games. All-Star guard Ben Simmons and sharpshooter Seth Curry missed three. Only Tobias Harris and Danny Green have played all seven. In his first season with the Sixers, this would have Rivers pulling his hair out ... if he had any.
“Clearly a challenge, when you have Ben and Joel out. Joel and Seth out. Ben, Seth, and Joel out. And you’re still winning games,” Rivers said after a 101-100 overtime win at the Knicks on Sunday. “I think our guys know what we want to do every night. How we want to play.”
That brings wins, and wins should bring recognition. In his first season with the Sixers, Rivers has an old-school team with a specious bench during a pandemic-butchered season rolling through the conference. Quin Snyder’s Utah Jazz have been consistently excellent too, but his principal players haven’t missed much time. Rivers is a magician, again.
He won coach of the year in 2000 when he pushed a hopeless Magic team to a .500 record in his first head-coaching job. It’s the only time a coach has won the award without reaching the playoffs.
He’s on the other end of that spectrum, but what he’s doing now is just as impressive. It will warrant another COY award if he keeps the club rolling.
Embiid has played just once since the All-Star break. He missed the resumption game due to COVID-19 protocols, then injured his knee in the second game back, and so has missed the last five. The team Tuesday indicated that he’ll probably miss at least the next four, too, all road games.
COVID protocols benched Simmons the first two games since the break, and his sore left knee cost him the sixth. Curry missed the last three with another ankle issue.
Roles have changed. Entering Golden State, outcomes had not.
Tobias Harris, the spurned All-Star, now is the primary scorer. Entering Golden State, he’d increased his output to 22.7 points, a 2.5-point improvement, and bumped his three-point shooting from 40.2% to 47.6%. He dropped 25 on Tuesday, including five in the definitive fourth-quarter surge.
Thirty-five-year-old Dwight Howard remains the backup center — Tony Bradley is starting, and he made all eight field goals for a career-high 18 on Tuesday — but Howard was playing 24.6 minutes per game, an increase of 8.7 minutes a night, scoring 10.0 points (3.9 more), and collecting 11.9 rebounds, an increase of 4.6. per game.
Green, who will be 34 in June, had increased his scoring from 8.5 points per game to 12.5; his steals from 1.3 to 2.1; and his three-point accuracy from 37.6% to 45.1%. His three with 5:32 to play Tuesday put the Sixers ahead for good.
“For us, we’re just trying to figure it out on the fly. With this particular NBA season, we don’t get much practice time. Just trying to build chemistry. We have pillars we stand on as a team,” Harris said. “The coaching staff has done an amazing job all year of putting us in the right positions to be successful.”
Once in those positions, of course, they don’t always capitalize.
On Sunday, in the last 3 minutes, 24 seconds of regulation, Simmons and Harris combined to commit five turnovers and went 0-for-4 from the free-throw line as the Sixers blew a five-point lead.
Green’s shooting saved them — but so did Matisse Thybulle’s late three-pointer, as well as Shake Milton’s 21 bench points, which made him the team’s high scorer for the second straight night; his four points in the fourth quarter Tuesday spurred the team’s comeback. Milton also dropped 28 on the Kings on Saturday, starting for Simmons. Those were the eighth and ninth times Milton played at least 29 minutes, and only two of those were starts.
This is all part of Doc’s plan. He and his staff put younger players in positions to produce early, so now they’re producing late.
“They’ve done an amazing job, man, but I think it started way before the break. It included involvement to give guys confidence for this point,” Green said. “The reason why we’re able to win games now is because of things we went through before the break. Without Joel. Without Seth. Without Ben.”
The plan worked great against the Bulls and the Knicks and godforsaken Wizards, but how would it work at Golden State on Tuesday and at the Lakers on Thursday?
It worked well Tuesday. Steph Curry didn’t play for the Warriors. Neither LeBron James nor Anthony Davis will play for the Lakers. The Sixers could return from their trip with first place still in their hands.
They should, in fact, if they listen to their doctor. His bedside manner might be gruff, and he doesn’t soft shoe. On Sunday he benched Howard in overtime; said that players like Harris tried to go one-on-one too much late; and Green was “the only one, in my opinion, who kept his composure. The game should have never gone into overtime. Guys were down. They were mad. They thought they had blown the game.”
This is not a man looking for allies.
“Horrendous execution by us tonight. We made a lot of mistakes,” Rivers said Sunday. “I had to waste the first timeout in overtime because I thought we’d kind of lost our spirit. It was one of those games, man, where you just have to gut it out of them. And we did that tonight.”
Of course they did.
It’s what great coaches do.