INDIANAPOLIS — This is the week for accomplishing pre-playoff goals.
For the 76ers, those goals include clinching the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed and resting key players. At 47-21, they are in first place and head into Tuesday’s game against the Indiana Pacers one win or a loss by the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks shy of securing that top seed.
This game could be a good time to rest MVP candidate Joel Embiid, who missed Monday’s practice for what coach Doc Rivers labeled load management. The four-time All-Star is listed as questionable against the Pacers (32-36) with a non-COVID-19 illness.
The team will play without reserves Matisse Thybulle (left hand soreness) and Furkan Korkmaz (sprained right ankle).
Getting a better idea of their playoff rotation could be an additional goal in the Sixers’ remaining four games. In that regard, Rivers has some tough decisions to make.
That’s because backup center Dwight Howard is the only reserve who has separated himself from the pack.
But the other rotation candidates — guards Tyrese Maxey, George Hill, Shake Milton, Korkmaz, and Thybulle — haven’t separated themselves. And one definite is that opposing teams are going to try to take advantage of whoever the Sixers use. All of them have things they must overcome.
If Korkmaz plays, teams are going to attack him defensively. If Thybulle is out there, they’re going to make him shoot the ball. If Milton is on the court, they’re going to pressure him as a way to force turnovers.
Right now, Hill is still trying to find his rhythm after playing in just 12 games as a Sixer following right thumb surgery. Teams will attempt to take advantage of Maxey’s inexperience as a rookie if he plays.
The Sixers have a good idea of what their rotation will look like. Rivers had 68 games to figure out who’s going to help them.
But maybe someone steps up. Maybe someone does some things the Sixers think will help them win a playoff game.
Thybulle definitely separated himself from the pack on one end of the floor, and the Sixers are going to need his defensive prowess. He and Ben Simmons are a solid defensive tandem. However, they both have their offensive shortcomings. So can the Sixers get away with pairing them on the court for extended stretches in the postseason when every possession will matter?
The Sixers acquired Hill from the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 25 because postseason experience is his specialty. The 35-year-old has averaged 12.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and a shade under one steal a game, while shooting 37% on three-pointers, with 91 starts in his 127 postseason appearances. The expectation is that Hill will be one of the first two players — if not the first — off the bench come playoff time.
With Hill’s playoff history, Rivers knows what he’s going to get from the guard in the postseason. At this time, the same cannot be said about Milton and Korkmaz.
One game, Milton might be really good offensively, then the next game he’ll excel only on defense. Korkmaz may hit shots one game and the next game he won’t. As exciting as Maxey is, you have to live with his rookie mistakes. You also don’t know how the 20-year-old will respond to the elevated play of the postseason.
But there’s a comfort level with Hill. The hope is that he’ll get into rhythm before the postseason begins.
It wouldn’t be surprising for him to continue being the sixth man and get increased minutes this week. That would enable him to become more comfortable with teammates.
Publicly, Rivers keeps expressing confidence in his backups. He said Saturday the Sixers won’t blink at playing 11 guys if they need to. He said the Sixers are that deep and that talented.
The coach has to say that. He knows his players are going to read it. Rivers has to keep all of them interested and feeling important. Even if they don’t play when the postseason begins, they have to believe they’ll play at some point.
Usually teams have core players who will be regulars in the rotation. They’ll use others depending on the circumstances.
For instance, maybe the Sixers could use Korkmaz if a team throw a zone at them. They could use Thybulle when they need defensive stops. If they’re not scoring, maybe they will insert Milton.
While they haven’t separated themselves, each reserve gives the Sixers something different.
Hill give them experience and steadiness. Thybulle provides lockdown defense. Milton give them scoring. Korkmaz supplies shooting. Maxey delivers the energy, while Mike Scott can give them minutes if one of the post players get in foul trouble.
So Rivers will have some options, depending on the situation.
But in the playoffs, you have to play your best players. So Rivers may use different players in different situations in his rotation. But you know the starters — Embiid, Simmons, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry and Danny Green — are going to play more minutes than during the regular season.
Rivers will still have the option of using the reserves in different situations. Maybe one of those wing options will separate himself from the pack this week.