INDIANAPOLIS — After being hit hard by COVID-19 during the past two weeks, the 76ers’ roster is slowly replenishing.
Reserve guard Isaiah Joe cleared the NBA’s health and safety protocols and rejoined the team Saturday in Indianapolis. He was upgraded to available to play about 90 minutes before tip-off.
“I don’t know if he can give us anything tonight … but it’s good to have him back,” head coach Doc Rivers said of Joe before the game. “We’re starting to get our numbers back. Obviously, we have [two] key guys out still. But, listen, we’ve just got to go through it and see how many games we can win while we’re going through it.”
Joe, a 2020 second-round draft pick, is averaging 3.5 points in 9.1 minutes per game. He’s shooting 36.4% from three-point range over 48 career NBA games.
Star forward Tobias Harris, who was the first player to enter protocols on Nov. 1, returned for Thursday’s loss to Toronto, totaling 19 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in 36 minutes. Reserve wing Matisse Thybulle, who entered protocols last Friday, and All-NBA center Joel Embiid, who has been in protocols since Monday, remain out
When asked if Thybulle or Embiid were expected back at some point on this road trip, Rivers said, “I have no idea, honestly.”
Vaccinated players can typically return after a 10-day quarantine or when they produce two consecutive negative tests 24 hours apart. Thybulle will complete his 10 days before the Sixers’ next game on Tuesday at Utah, while Embiid will reach that point in time for Thursday’s matchup against Denver and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
Though Rivers joked he wants those isolating players “to stay the hell away from us,” he and the staff have maintained regular contact through phone calls and text messages.
“We communicate about the game with each guy,” Rivers said. “They’re still part of the team. They’re just on vacation.”
Assistant coach Burke brings defense from Indy to Philly
Saturday’s game at Indiana was a homecoming of sorts for Sixers assistant Dan Burke, who was a defensive coaching specialist on the Pacers’ staff from 1997-2020, spanning the head-coaching stints of Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Rick Carlisle, Jim O’Brien, Frank Vogel, and Nate McMillan.
Burke had an immediate impact in his first season with the Sixers, whose defense was the NBA’s second-most efficient (107 points allowed per 100 possessions) in 2020-21. Philly entered Saturday ranked 23rd in that category this season, allowing 108.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Rivers has long believed in having a “defensive coordinator” on his staff. It’s a philosophy that originated from his visits with multiple NFL coaches including the legendary Bill Belichick, who focused on one side of the ball and overall team operations while handing the primary responsibilities for the other side to an assistant. In 2007, Rivers hired Tom Thibodeau for that post with the Boston Celtics.
Rivers has called Burke an “easy fit” in Philly. The two coaches were both influenced by the late Dick Harter, who was an assistant during Rivers’ playing stint with the New York Knicks in the early 1990s and is who Rivers has “always styled my defense after.” Harter is better known in Philadelphia as the head coach at Penn from 1966-71. His Quakers went 53-3 in his last two years in West Philly. Burke worked with Harter when both were on staff with the Portland Trail Blazers and Pacers.
“You trust him,” Rivers said of Burke. “You know he’s gonna do the work. That’s what makes Dan so [important]. No one’s gonna watch more games and [do] more preparation than him. It’s a nice guy to have on your staff.”