It wasn’t too surprising that 76ers coach Doc Rivers was angry with his reserves during halftime of Tuesday’s 118-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks.
The Sixers led Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series by as many as 18 points in the first half, but entered halftime with just a 57-55 lead. More glaring was that the Hawks had a 32-0 edge in bench scoring.
So as part of his halftime talk, Rivers let his reserves have it in no uncertain terms.
“He challenged (us), that is what good coaches do,” said guard George Hill, who played 18 minutes, 34 seconds, the second most of the Sixers’ reserves behind only Matisse Thybulle’s 23:38 on Tuesday. “Sometimes you have to rip the guys (butts) to play well and I think he ripped all our behinds at half, it wasn’t pretty.”
Neither was their play in the first half.
The five Sixers reserves were a combined minus-40 in the first half while the five Hawks first-half subs were plus-31.
“Sometimes hearing the truth is what you need,” Hill said following Thursday’s practice.
In the second half, the Sixers’ bench outscored the Hawks, 26-17.
While many coaches go into a postseason with a set rotation, Rivers seems to be going on a game-by-game basis.
There is no telling what his rotation will look like when the Sixers visit the Hawks on Friday for Game 3 with the best-of-seven series tied at one game apiece.
For instance, in his previous five playoff games, rookie Tyrese Maxey had averaged 17.3 minutes.
During Tuesday’s win, Maxey played just 5 minutes, 6 seconds and was held scoreless.
Conversely, Shake Milton, who played just 38 seconds in Sunday’s opening 128-124 loss to the Hawks, was a secondary star to Joel Embiid’s career postseason-high 40-point performance in Game 2.
Milton had averaged just eight minutes in the previous six playoff contests. On Tuesday, he turned in his best postseason performance with 14 second-half points, which included 4-of-5 shooting from three-point range, in just over 14 minutes.
Milton said that he had no idea how much he was going to play entering the game.
“It was something that just happened during the game,” Milton said after practice Thursday. “ ... You’ve just got to be ready, (you don’t know) how many minutes you are going to play, whether it is one or 15 and you got to be ready and when your number is called you have to make the most of it.”
Teams have frequently shortened their rotation in the playoffs, but the Sixers went with 11 players Tuesday when the outcome was still in doubt. Milton was the 11th of those to see action with all his minutes in the second half.
“I don’t think a team shortens it unless they have a team they don’t trust,” Rivers said about his rotation.
Rivers, now in his 22nd season as a head coach, says he has had deep rotations before in the playoffs as well as seven- or eight-man rotations.
“We have a lot of guys on this team who can play, we have a plethora of guards who can play and they all can’t play every night,” Rivers said.
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So there is a competition for some of the reserves, including Milton, to see the floor.
”We want to keep them in rhythm and the push-and-pull principle,” Rivers said. “If you play well, you keep playing, if not there is a guy pushing you, which will pull you along as well. So I think it has been good for us.”
The Hawks have not gone as deep as the Sixers, but their top two players off the bench, Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari, have combined to average 32.5 points in the two games. Atlanta has not gotten good bench play from former Sixer Lou Williams, who has only attempted nine field goals in the two games. The bench depth is also hurt as starter De’Andre Hunter is out for the postseason due to a small tear in the lateral meniscus that will require surgery.
The Hawks have a more settled rotation while Rivers is still feeling his way through his, something that could continue at least through this series.