Where losers see crisis, winners see opportunity. Doc Rivers saw “tremendous opportunity” in Joel Embiid’s absence. Then Doc and his two underachieving starters performed tremendously, given this opportunity, and made the Wizards disappear.
“Ben [Simmons] was incredible,” Rivers gushed. “Seth [Curry] ... what can you say?”
The Sixers ran away with Game 5, 129-112, and ended their first-round series with emphasis. The Hawks await. With Embiid or without, crisis or no, if these three Sixers approach their future the way they approached Wednesday night, with neither fear nor hesitation, they won’t stop winning any time soon.
The other brother
Seth Curry, who shares a surname with the most opportunistic player alive, scored 30 points. That was eight points better than his career playoff high, two points better than his previous best night in his first season as a Sixer, and just the fourth time he’s scored 30 in his unlikely seven-year career.
“Obviously, Jo isn’t out there,” Curry said. “Other guys got to do a little bit more.”
On demand, apparently. Curry said that, during their post-practice “Call of Duty: Warzone” video game session, but before their 90-minute afternoon nap, Simmons told Curry that he wanted Curry to score 30 points.
No word on whether Curry told Simmons that he wanted him to shoot some threes.
Simmons reinvented himself again. He’d shot just twice in Game 4 after Embiid’s injury shelved the big man for the final three quarters, but in their pregame chat Wednesday, Simmons told Curry that he planned to record the third triple-double of his playoff career.
Then Simmons started at center, à la Magic Johnson vs. the Sixers in 1980.
Simmons wasn’t as effective as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s alarming understudy — Magic dropped 42 — but Big Ben managed 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting, dealt 11 assists, and grabbed 10 rebounds. He also foiled a brief Hack-a-Ben strategy, which the Wizards had used late in Game 4 to secure the win. On Wednesday, Simmons dropped 3 of 4 free throws late in the second quarter, and he finished 5-for-8.
“I feel like my I.Q. on the court is so high, I can make plays happen,” said Simmons, who adroitly avoided any hint of false modesty.
So Seth was great, and Ben was good. But it was Doc, with a coroner’s conviction and a preacher’s persuasion, who made the thing work.
The good doctor
Rivers started 6-foot-5 guard Matisse Thybulle in place of 7-foot-2 Embiid, a bit of strategic brilliance that sped the Sixers’ typically 33-rpm game up to 78 rpm. Doc then prayed that Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal wouldn’t combine for 80 points; they had 56, thanks in part to frequent double teams of Beal, an elegant and lethal scorer.
In less than 24 hours — plane, train, and automobile misadventures delayed the team’s return from D.C. until 6 a.m. Tuesday — Rivers conceived a game plan predicated on pace and movement and energy. Doc then sold that plan to a team deprived of its best player of this generation. The players bought it.
“We put them in position,” Rivers explained, “then get them to believe.”
This is the crux of good coaching.
And this, Rivers said, was the crux of his scheme:
“Our job was to make sure everybody was in the right place. Make sure we spaced right.”
Simply: Clear the low and high posts, stay behind the three-point line, and let the playmakers make plays.
“If we were going to go small, we had a ‘no-paint’ rule in transition. We said the paint, as far as running without the ball, was an electric fence.”
More than 15,000 COVID scoffers at the Wells Fargo Center will attest: It was electric.
It was particularly exciting for those who know the coaching history of Glenn Anton Rivers. He’s a championship coach, but he’s best known for being the only coach in NBA history to blow three 3-1 series leads, once with the Magic and twice with the Clippers.
When Doc dispatched this dangerous visitor, you could hear him exhale as far away as Los Angeles and Orlando.
If Seth, Ben, and Doc were the most opportunistic opportunists Wednesday night, there were, of course, costars.
Affable guard Tyrese Maxey, a quick and deadly COVID-era rookie who played in front of a full NBA house for the first time, poured in 13 points, which wasn’t unusual, but he played 26 minutes, which was. Rivers said this aberration in inclusion was possible because Maxey, once Rivers’ worst defender, no longer stinks.
“I appreciate that, Coach,” said Maxey, who then explained his improvement from worst-to ... well, maybe not worst to first, but at least not worst anymore: “It’s just been a lot of film work. Knowing personnel. Knowing certain spots to be in. I’m going to try to get 1% better every single day.”
Make it 2% Wednesday night.
Dwight Howard once wore the Man of Steel’s costume in a dunk contest, but he’s a not-so-super 56.6% free-throw shooter over his 16-year career. Nevertheless, he came off the bench Wednesday and made 8 of 10 foul shots in the middle of the second-half run that swung the game.
It’s just the second time in more than three years he’s made at least eight freebies. Moreover, Howard’s 12 points doubled his average (6.0) in his 28 playoff games over the last five years.
Hey, what about ...
Tobias Harris scored 28 points, but he’s supposed to. Furkan Korkmaz had 10, and so took another step toward relevance.
No, what happened Wednesday hinged on two players playing the way they always should play, and on one coach calling a team-wide about-face and turning a crisis into an opportunity.
“Going small, installing our spread stuff we were running ... " Rivers said, incredulous at how the plan came together. “For us to execute that well, it just tells you how focused they were.”
And how focused he demanded they become.