Doc Rivers says there’s no extra motivation.
No one would blame him for saying the opposite. He accepted the 76ers head coaching job within days of being fired by the Los Angeles Clippers. Despite having the best winning percentage in Clippers franchise history, Rivers had been criticized for losing last season’s second-round playoff series after initially taking a commanding 3-1 lead. In addition, that squad had major chemistry issues, star players were given special treatment and one of those players, Paul George, threw Rivers under the bus.
But he said before Wednesday’s 113-107, season-opening victory over the Washington Wizards that he was not motivated to prove that he’s still the same Doc Rivers that people adored.
“It’s not about me,” Rivers said. “It’s about our guys. It’s about our team. And I’m the coach, and the coach is always going to be the fall guy. ... That’s the way it is. Accept it and keep moving on.”
Wednesday’s victory marked Rivers’ 944th regular-season victory, moving him into a tie with Bill Fitch for 10th place on the NBA all-time wins list. Rivers can take sole possession of 10th place when the Sixers face the New York Knicks Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
On this night, Joel Embiid led the Sixers with 29 points and 14 rebounds. Fifteen of his points came in the fourth quarter on 5-for-8 shooting. Ben Simmons added 16 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 blocks, and 2 steals. Shake Milton scored 19 points in a reserve role.
Talking to Rivers, he expects to add a lot more victories to his total this season. He’ll tell you the team’s depth is the main reason for his optimism.
“And it starts with those two guys,” he said of All-Stars Simmons and Embiid. “But we have to make each one of our guys great this year. Obviously, we want Ben and Joel to have their best seasons, but it’s still not going to work if Shake, Tobias [Harris], and Danny [Green] don’t have their best seasons.
“So we have a lot of work to do.”
Milton did his part. However, Harris and Green had nights they would mostly like to forget.
Harris had 10 points on 3-for-13 shooting. He missed all four of his three-pointers, but his foul shots gave the Sixers a 111-105 lead with 15 seconds left. Green had two points on 1-for-6 shooting. He also missed all four of his three-pointers and finished a minus-27. (Overall, the Sixers made just 8-of-28 three-pointers (28.6%).
Rivers’ second-teamers actually played better than the starters at times.
Tyrese Maxey and Mike Scott subbed in for Simmons and Harris with the Sixers down 26-25 with 1 minute, 7 seconds left in the first quarter, creating an all-second unit lineup of Maxey, Scott, Dwight Howard, Furkan Korkmaz, and Milton.
That lineup ended the quarter on a 5-0 run and had a seven-point cushion (39-32) after Maxey’s layup with 8:50 left in the second quarter. Rivers started subbing his starters back in 22 seconds later. The Sixers went on to take a 13-point lead but lost the lead after Rivers had his full starting lineup back in.
Sparked by a 9-0 run, the Wizards built a 68-58 cushion with 7:36 left in the third quarter, when Rivers called his second timeout in the first five minutes of the second half.
Things got testy after Simmons was fouled by Ish Smith with 4:12 left in the third quarter. The Sixers took exception to Davis Bertans swiping down with force on Simmons’ arms during the play. Harris immediately pushed him out the way, then Howard jawed at the Wizards. Howard and Bradley Beal both received technical fouls on the play.
But on this night, Milton and Maxey deserved more minutes. The Sixers could have gotten more use out of Matisse Thybulle, one of their best perimeter defenders, who was inserted in the game late in the fourth quarter.
Beal and new Wizards point guard Russell Westbrook torched the Sixers perimeter defenders.
Beal finished with a game-high 31 points, while Westbrook had 21 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds in his Wizards debut. The Sixers actually had a tough time defending anyone in the perimeter. Washington made 13 of 27 three-pointers (48.1%).
Thybulle was slowed by an ankle injury at the start of training camp and has been brought along slowly. Rivers, who likes to go with a 10-man rotation, pointed that Maxey was playing great in the first half.
“But Matisse will get his chance,” he said. “And I tell him that every day.”
Embiid gave the Sixers the lift they needed in the fourth quarter when Rivers surrounded him with shooters to space the floor.
“It all starts with Coach, letting everybody know their role, who’s who, especially me, being me having the hot hand the way that I did,” Embiid said.
He created his own shot and made plays for teammates when double-teamed.
Rivers could have a challenge on his hands.
Unlike the Clippers, the Sixers aren’t expected to contend for the NBA title. Some people with his stature and wealth would have opted to take at least one season off to rest up. Instead, Rivers is embarking on his 22nd season in a coaching career that boasts an NBA title with the Boston Celtics in 2008.
“I love it,” Rivers said of what keeps him going. “I love my job, and I swear the day I don’t, I’m out. I want to win. I want to win, again, you know, and I want this group to win.
“So that’s what drives me.”
Following the game, Simmons and Howard took extra shots at one basket, while Thybulle did the same at the other end.
Simmons said it was something he needed to do.
“He’s just pushing me,” Simmons said of Howard. “He wants me to be great, and I really appreciate that and respect him a lot, especially with the career he’s had. He’s somebody that I know has come into this organization and has pushed me and believes in me.
“So to have that and somebody do that makes you feel good, makes you feel hungry, makes you want to work.”