The 76ers didn’t have a serious chance. How could they?
On Saturday, a team ravaged by the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and injuries, had eight active players in its 115-103 loss to the Denver Nuggets at the Wells Fargo Center.
Mike Scott, one of those active players, is dealing with a left knee bruise and didn’t play.
For the Sixers (7-3), the game was nothing more than an opportunity for Tyrese Maxey to showcase his skills. The rookie finished with career highs of 39 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and two steals. Both of his turnovers came late in the game. In the process, Maxey joins Hall of Famers Allen Iverson and Hal Greer as only Sixers rookies to score at least 39 points in a game.
“I was really just trying to win, doing whatever it took to win,” Maxey said. “I knew I was going to have to do a lot more than usual. But that was just my main goal just coming out.
“We kept it competitive for a very long time. We couldn’t pull it off at the end, but it was fun.”
The Nuggets (4-5) rested their starters in the fourth quarter on a night all 15 of their active players saw action. Denver was up 21 points heading into the final quarter.
Maxey’s extended opportunity came because of a Sixers’ roster that began losing players over the course of a whacky 43 hours. It all started with Seth Curry, who was sidelined with ankle soreness, being informed early in Thursday night’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
So he was sidelined on Saturday because of the health and safety protocols. Also unavailable were Tobias Harris along with reserves Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, and Vincent Poirier. The four players were out due to contact tracing after being seated at the same table with Curry at a team meeting Thursday in New York.
Meanwhile, Joel Embiid missed the game after experiencing back tightness Saturday morning. Doc Rivers said Ben Simmons was out after experiencing knee stiffness in the Nets game.
That left Danny Green as the lone regular starter to play in the game. He was joined in the starting lineup by center Dwight Howard, two-way guard Dakota Mathias, and rookie guards Maxey and Isaiah Joe.
Joe and Mathias are out of the normal rotation, but could see considerable playing time over the next few games.
According to the NBA protocol, a player must isolate at least 10 days after the first positive test or onset of symptoms, or test negative twice at least 24 hours apart via PCR testing. As a result, Curry will miss the next five games.
Players out because of contact tracing are normally sidelined for seven days, which would mean three more games for Thybulle, Milton, and Poirier.
“We don’t know,” Rivers said when asked if they would miss the full amount of days. “We don’t know anything. We have to make that assumption, I guess.
“I mean, they were at a table. So it wasn’t like close contact. So maybe that will shorten their days. I don’t know that.”
They usually have three or four players at a large table to maintain social distancing.
“But I guess even that’s too close,” Rivers said. “I mean, I don’t know. I don’t get that whole [thing.]”
The Sixers appear to be in the dark when it comes to what will be determined.
“Especially today, I want to make a statement that Doc is a nickname, because I clearly don’t know the medical part of this whole thing,” said Rivers, who’s not a physician but whose first name is Glenn.
In addition to being without All-Stars Simmons and Embiid and missing players due to protocols and injuries, Furkan Korkmaz (left groin strain) was also sidelined. Terrance Ferguson missed the game because of personal reasons.
It will be hard for the Sixers to ever forget what transpired after learning that Curry tested positive. They were forced to quarantine and contact trace in a Manhattan hotel late Thursday after the game against Brooklyn and in to Friday. Members of the Sixers’ travel party took two separate tests on Friday and waited for their results. They then boarded separate buses around 11 p.m. to travel back to the Philadelphia area. They returned home around 1 a.m. Saturday.
“Then not knowing if you are playing or not,” Rivers said. “You [are] on the phone with your coaches and stuff until 4 in the morning.”
Despite the uncertainty, they tried to come up with a game plan. Arriving early at the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers went about the day as if the game would be played. But playing the game didn’t become a definite until around three hours before the 3 p.m. scheduled start.
Rivers didn’t even partake in the walk-through; instead, he was on a call with the league.
“You know, I trust the league and I trust the doctors as far as health wise,” Rivers said of the COVID-19 protocols. “I’m more concerned with the health on the floor.”
The Sixers played guys Saturday who hadn’t played a lot of minutes so far this season. With only seven bodies, Maxey had to play 43 minutes, 45 seconds. But the biggest leaps involved Joe and Mathias. Joe logged 44:51 after playing a combined 27 minutes in his previous four appearance. Mathias had 41:03 after playing just 30 in his prior four games.
“That’s just not for today,” Rivers said. “That’s long-term health with the accumulation of games. You know [those are] the numbers we want to stay away from with our players.
“So I’m actually more concerned about that than I am actually about COVID.”
That’s saying a lot considering how Rivers is concerned about the pandemic. But the coach didn’t think his team should have played Saturday.
“It’s not for me to express that [to the NBA],” he said. “I do worry about our players’ health on the floor.”
Howard moved into sole possession of 13th place on the league’s career rebounding list with 13,759. He did that by finishing with 11 points to go with 11 rebounds.
Joe had a career-high 13 points, while Mathias added a career-high 12.
Maxey had 31 points through three quarters. After scoring on a pull-up jumper early in the fourth quarter, he added two late three-pointers to get to 39 points.
Wanting him to go over the 40-point mark, Rivers drew up a play for him with around 23 seconds left.
“He became a point guard on me and made a pass,” Rivers said. “I told him, ‘Bro, you got 39, you at least got to throw it up to the rim on that one,’ ” Rivers said of Maxey passing the ball.
He got the ball back, but had his layup blocked with 14.4 seconds left.
“I’m not going to lie,” Maxey said. “I was about to pull it out. I wasn’t going to shoot until [Rivers] told me to. So I was like dang. That’s probably why I missed it probably. I really appreciate him for [encouraging him to go for more than 40 points].”
Before the game, Rivers jokingly told the media to relay a message to Nuggets coach Mike Malone during his pregame availability.
“Ask Mike, guys, a message from Doc if he could sit out about seven or eight guys?” he said. “That would be very nice of him.”
Maxey said the experiences over the past couple of days were tough.
“But I think we knew coming in we were going to have these adversities, challenges like that,” he said of playing during the pandemic. “Guys stepped up. Of course, we didn’t get the dub, which is disappointing, but you have to be a pro’s pro.”