CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tyrese Maxey is typically one of the first 76ers players to warm up before each game. That he was nowhere to be found around 4:45 p.m. Monday at the Spectrum Center was the clue that something was not right with the second-year point guard.
Maxey was a late scratch for the the Sixers’ first of two consecutive road games against the Hornets this week because of a non-COVID-19 illness, the team announced. Assistant coach Dan Burke, who fulfilled many of Doc Rivers’ duties Monday while the head coach attended to a family matter, saidl he learned about Maxey just before his pregame media session. Shake Milton replaced Maxey in the starting lineup.
“All I know is, when Doc gets here, we’ll have plenty to talk about in that last hour,” Burke said. " … It just seems like an update every minute right now around the league. Hopefully, [Maxey] is feeling better by tomorrow. But as far as I know, he’s going to come see the doctor and get back and rest up.”
The good news for the Sixers: Starting forward Tobias Harris was upgraded to available to play Monday after also battling a non-COVID illness that kept him out of Friday’s victory at Atlanta. Harris said he had a 104-degree fever, chills and other symptoms that were worse than when he had the coronavirus last month. He practiced Sunday in Charlotte and was at Monday’s shootaround.
Entering Monday, Maxey and reserve forward Georges Niang were the only Sixers who had played in every game this season.
Maxey’s ascension has been one of the bright spots of the team’s early season, though he has been sputtering through a shooting slump in recent games. He is averaging 17.2 points, 4.9 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game while shooting 46.5% from the floor and 36.1% from three-point distance.
Burke steps in for Rivers
When the Sixers gathered at midcourt for their shootaround ahead of Monday’s game against the Hornets, Burke — not Rivers — was the man in charge.
Rivers was expected to return from his family matter Monday evening in time to coach the game. Burke said he was notified as the Sixers traveled from Atlanta to Charlotte following Friday’s victory against the Hawks that he would need to step in during the day on Monday.
“Whatever [Rivers] needs,” said Burke, who has been an NBA assistant for more than 30 years. “We’re all supposed to be in this together.”
Burke’s plan for shootaround was to “do what Doc would do,” with a skeleton walk-through that was opponent-specific. After that, he created his normal game-day film edit of the defensive game plan that is shown about 35 minutes before game time and focuses on elements such as opponent plays after timeouts, end-of-game packages, rotations, and matchups.
“The only question was, if Doc was late, [I’d say], ‘Sam, get the offense going,’” Burke said, referring to fellow assistant Sam Cassell. “Otherwise, another game day.”
Monday is the Sixers’ first of two consecutive road games against the Hornets. On Sunday night, Charlotte beat the Hawks, 130-127, in Atlanta, despite being without star LaMelo Ball, along with Terry Rozier, Mason Plumlee, and Jalen McDaniels because of health and safety protocols. Reserve point guard Ish Smith was added to the list of players in protocols Monday.
“I know Doc would come in here this morning and lay it out: We can’t take anything for granted,” Burke said. “We feel bad for their guys that are out, but once that ball’s tipped, we’re ready to kick some butt and get after it.”
Rivers brought Burke to Philadelphia last season to be his defensive coordinator. The Sixers ranked second in the NBA in efficiency last season (107 points allowed per 100 possessions), anchored by NBA All-Defensive performers Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Matisse Thybulle.
This season, the Sixers struggled early on that end of the floor, but have been a top-10 unit over their past 10 games (107.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) entering Monday. Their fourth quarter against Atlanta on Friday might have been their best stretch yet, holding the normally potent Hawks to nine points on 3-of-20 shooting in a comeback victory.
“We gave ourselves away that game,” Burke quipped. “Our guards can go in there and box out and smash the bigs. We can get deflections. We got some timely stops in that game, and we’ve just got to keep building from that.”
When asked to describe his defensive philosophy, Burke highlighted containing the ball, “shrinking” the court, and being assignment-sound.
“We’re not a gimmick team,” Burke said. “You’ve got to be disciplined. You can’t make your own thing up on the fly. If one guy makes [something] up, four guys don’t know what we’re doing, we’re in trouble.”
That steadfast approach resonates with Thybulle, who has rapidly emerged as one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders. He is constantly balancing capitalizing on his supreme instincts and athleticism with playing within the confines of the Sixers’ system.
“I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes,” Thybulle said of Burke. “There’s things that I can do that you can’t really teach, and at times will get me in trouble. So it’s like, how do you keep that in check without keeping the leash [too tight]?
“I will say, to his credit, he’s done a really good job of that. I’ve never felt constricted on defense, and I always feel like I’m able to go and make the plays that I can to help the team.”
Last season, Rivers missed a Sixers practice coming out of the All-Star break but returned in time to coach their next game.