Doc Rivers’ talk and actions overflow with confidence.
The 76ers coach chose to stick to his normal schedule and just have his players partake in film study Thursday on the eve of their most important game of the season.
His team finds itself in a critical spot heading into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Atlanta Hawks.
Atlanta takes a 3-2 series lead into the matchup at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the State Farm Arena. The Sixers must win in order to stay alive. One would assume they have a lot to work on based on blowing a 26-point lead in Wednesday’s Game 5 loss at the Wells Fargo Center.
With one day between games, Rivers felt rest and watching film was more important.
“We’ve done that all year,” he said. “I don’t think one loss, one bad loss [should trigger] ‘We panic and go practice for two hours.’ I don’t think that’s good for anyone.”
But less than 30 minutes after the Game 5 loss, Rivers told reporters the Sixers will be back at the Wells Fargo Center for Game 7.
So why the confidence?
“I should be. Shouldn’t I?” he said Thursday. “I believe in my team. So that’s it.”
The Sixers have shown an ability to play good basketball and beat the Hawks in this series. Their 127-111 Game 3 victory showed they can win in front of the Hawks’ enthusiastic crowd at State Farm Arena.
However, the Sixers’ best three players have vanished down the stretch while losing the last two games.
Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris shot a combined 2-for-17 in the fourth quarter of Games 4 and 5. Ben Simmons hasn’t attempted a shot.
That combined with Simmons’ foul-shooting woes and shabby bench play led the Sixers to becoming the only team to blow at least an 18-point lead in back-to-back playoff games in the last 25 seasons.
“You get to the next game and it’s a new game,” Rivers said. “Every game is a single game. There’s no like Tobias was out of it. Does that mean he’s going to be out of it tomorrow? No. I trust my guys for the most part. They’ve come through. They’ve played well.
“I really believe they’re going to do that. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have said it.”
But Game 5 winners of best-of-seven series that were tied 2-2 have advanced 82% percent of the time.
The Sixers are definitely going to need to get better efforts from their three stars if they expect to force Game 7.
Harris is coming off his worst performance of the postseason, scoring four points on 2-for-11 shooting in Game 5. He missed all four of his shots and was scoreless in the second half. The power forward never could never get in a rhythm partly due to the Sixers’ lack of ball movement. However, he looked out of sorts and was too passive down the stretch.
Embiid has had disastrous second halves in the last two games.
The league MVP runner-up is dealing with a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. However, he also looked winded after intermission in both games.
Embiid shot 1-for-5 in the fourth quarter Wednesday, missing his final four shots. He also missed a pair of free throws with 10.9 seconds left. At the time, the Sixers were down, 107-104. In Game 4, he missed all 12 of his second-half shots.
However, Simmons is again struggling offensively in the second round of the playoffs. One can argue some of it has to do with being passive.
He’s only attempted five shots in the past six quarters. But his biggest deficiency has come at the foul line.
After going 4-for-14 Wednesday, he became the first player this season — regular season or playoffs — to miss 10 in game. In all, Simmons has missed 45 free throws this postseason. The Hawks have missed 35 combined.
He’s shooting 32.8% from the foul line this postseason. The three-time All-Star has regressed since appearing in the postseason as a rookie in 2018. Back then, Simmons shot 70.6% from the foul line. He shot 57.5% from the foul line in 2019. And it’s been a bona fide struggle this postseason.
His missed free throws during Hack-a-Ben situations has hindered the team to a point where Rivers was forced to take him out of games.
But his trips to the foul line after intermission helped to zap the Sixers’ momentum Wednesday. Afterward, he said his struggles there are mental.
“It is a mental game,” Rivers said. “We all know that. It’s always been that way with all these guys in the league that struggle.”
As the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, Rivers went through the same thing in the postseason with center DeAndre Jordan.
“The one thing you got to do is keep working on them,” the coach said. “You got to keep trying to get a routine that maybe you can lose the mental part, because you have checked into your routine. But it’s hard to do right now.
“And so we just got to keep him working on it, and that’s what he’s doing.”
In addition to supporting Simmons, the coach is considering reducing his rotation. On Wednesday, he had a lineup with Tobias Harris and four reserves. That lineup wasn’t very productive. Nor have his all-bench lineups been very productive.
But Rivers is confident and locked-in for Game 6.
One of his players asked him if he ever lost a Game 5 at home and won the series. Rivers responded, “Yeah. I have.”
That happened when he was coach of the Clippers against the San Antonio Spurs in a 2015 first-round series.
“I know it’s a task that can be done,” Rivers said. “I shared that when the guy asked that. But I don’t know what that does for everybody.
“But all these experiences you put in the bank, and you try to use them to the best that you can.”