TORONTO — It wasn’t pretty, but it will count. And the win was all 76ers coach Doc Rivers wanted to talk about.
On paper, Tuesday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors seemed like a stroll in the park, but nothing has been easy for the Sixers (18-16) recently.
Barely beating — or losing to — undermanned teams has become a recent trend for a Sixers team that was expected to contend for the Eastern Conference title. Yet, when The Inquirer asked if he’s concerned that it keeps happening, Rivers didn’t want to discuss that trend.
While Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., and Malachi Flynn played after clearing the COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the Raptors (14-17) still had seven players — including Fred VanVleet — sidelined due to COVID. Two other players — Goran Dragic (not with the team) and David Johnson (left calf strain) — were also sidelined.
The Sixers’ win was in doubt late. They trailed 109-108 with a little more than one minute remaining. Embiid responded with the go-ahead basket with 51.3 seconds left, before Harris scored the game’s final four points from the foul line.
But playing close against a team with so few available key players was expected amid the league’s COVID outbreak. In the last six games, they lost to the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, and Atlanta Hawks. They’ve also beat the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors in close calls, and blew out another undermanned squad, the Washington Wizards, by 21 points.
Like Tuesday’s victory, the Sixers needed an MVP-level performance from Embiid to beat a Boston squad playing without starting post players Al Horford, Robert Williams III, and reserve post player Grant Williams.
The Sixers center finished with a game-high 41 points to go with 10 rebounds, five assists, a game-high four blocks, and two steals. Seventeen of his points came in the fourth quarter. He scored the Sixers’ final nine points and had a game-clinching steal with 2.5 seconds remaining.
Meanwhile, they lost to the Heat without their three best players — All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, along with Tyler Herro — among others by five points.
Brooklyn had nine players out, including James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, and Joe Harris — in a five-point victory over the Sixers.
But after the Sixers barely beat the Raptors, The Inquirer asked Rivers if he was concerned by the trend of close games against undermanned teams.
“No,” he said. “Like, I think it’s funny. When we were undermanned and we won a couple of games, and we had close games and we lost, I didn’t hear that in reverse. Like, this is the NBA. Think about that stretch when we had all those guys and we lost four and five games by one point, three points.
“Were their coaches worried that they won one point or three points? These guys played hard. This is the NBA. Every single guy in this league can play. So I don’t sit back and judge like we didn’t win by 10 or 12 tonight. … They’re not sitting back, thinking, ‘Man, we should have won by 20.’”
Rivers is right.
The Sixers were decimated by injuries and COVID-19 last month while a lot of their games were against opponents close to full strength.
Back then, Embiid, Harris, Matisse Thybulle, and Isaiah Joe missed a combined 27 games because of testing positive to COVID. Harris was the first Sixer in protocol, followed by Joe, then Thybulle and Embiid.
The Sixers won their first four games while undermanned, improving their record to a league-best 8-2. They didn’t start losing until Embiid entered protocols on Nov. 8. During his absence, they lost five straight games and seven of the nine.
Five of the losses were by seven, nine, six, five, and seven points. Another loss was a 35-point setback against the Utah Jazz without Embiid and Danny Green on Nov. 16. Then they suffered a 20-point loss to the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 24 without Embiid and Harris.
Now, the Sixers have recently been without Green, Shake Milton, and Andre Drummond because of protocols. But the expectation was the Sixers would roll over decimated opponents with Embiid and Harris available.
Despite that track record and the presence of Embiid, Rivers appeared agitated and upset while answering the initial question.
“No, not at all,” he said when asked if he was emotional. “I’m just miffed by that question. That’s a question that always tells me, like, clearly you didn’t play enough to kind of understand that. Like, if you win a game, you are happy.
“My point is, I didn’t hear you asking about when we were losing those close games, ‘What do you think about? Were you happy about the loss, because you were close?’”
That’s when The Inquirer reminded Rivers that he was asked about those losses.
Aside from two lopsided defeats, the Sixers played with grit while undermanned. Back then, Rivers was asked several times about his team’s performance. However, he didn’t want to use their absences as excuses for losses.
But he wasn’t finished voicing his displeasure with the question.
“I just think it’s a silly question. I really do,” he said. “Like we won a game and you are trying to take steam away from it. I do. I’m just giving you my opinion. I think that’s a silly question.”
Rivers’ stance was clear. He expressed his displeasure — which is his right — but that doesn’t change what happened on the court.