In mid-April 2012, a town car picked up Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to take them back to a Manhattan hotel following the Boston Celtics’ game against the New Jersey Nets.
Coach Doc Rivers and the rest of the Celtics, meanwhile, flew to Charlotte for the second night of a back-to-back and then immediately returned to New York for a game against the Knicks, where their three stars were waiting for them.
“We didn’t call it ‘load management,’ ” Rivers said earlier this week. “I just called it, ‘We’re not playing them tonight.’ ”
So what’s facing the 76ers during the regular season’s final three weeks is not a new concept for their coach. They are in the middle of one of the more bizarre scheduling stretches of the season: six games in nine nights, including two back-to-backs and two one-game road trips. The final two games, at home against Toronto and Miami on Sunday and Monday, respectively, are particularly “awful,” Rivers said. Those will tip off 22 ½ hours apart because of an 8:30 p.m. start Sunday to accommodate a nationally televised 2 p.m. Flyers game against the New York Islanders.
Even though these new-look Sixers are still working to gel with trade deadline acquisition James Harden in a jumbled Eastern Conference playoff race with 13 games to play following Friday’s 111-101 victory over Dallas, this weekend could present a time for some creative roster management. When asked before the game if Harden or MVP contender Joel Embiid could sit out against either the Raptors or the Heat, the coach responded with a coy, “It’s possible.”
“You’d rather have this at the beginning of the year,” Rivers said of the funky week. “But every team, at some point, goes through a stretch like this.”
For the second consecutive game, Embiid was listed as questionable Friday with back soreness stemming from a hard fall he took during Monday’s loss to Denver, before opting to play against the Mavericks. Embiid is also in the category of a player who simply needs a rest after playing in 40 of the Sixers’ past 41 games. Harden, who missed a March 5 loss at Miami to manage the hamstring injury that occurred before the trade, and Tyrese Maxey, a second-year guard playing the most basketball of his life, are also in that group.
Determining when exactly to schedule rest is a partnership between the player and the Sixers’ staff. The team has already mapped out which games somebody should sit for the remainder of the season, along with “yellow” days that can flip to green or red based on how that player feels at that particular time. It’s all part of the extensive data now collected by teams, including an ability to track each player’s miles per hour during a practice to measure conditioning and determine if he is better when going at a faster (or slower) pace.
“I’m clearly not smart enough to figure it out,” Rivers said. “So I don’t even try.”
Players also listen to their bodies to manage their workloads on days in between games.
Reserve forward Georges Niang, who is playing a career-high 23 minutes per game this season and regained his shooting rhythm in a 4-for-7 performance from three-point range against the Mavericks, said trading on-court work for more detailed film study has been helpful. Maxey has learned throughout the season that, some days, he only shoots layups and free throws during his daily visit to the practice facility and that “sometimes you have to take a day and you have to rest.” Starting wing Matisse Thybulle added, “Some days you feel terrible, so you come in and sit in the hot tub all day.”
“You take it a day at a time,” Thybulle said. “There’s really no predicting. It’s just what you wake up [feeling like] that morning is what you’re gonna have, and that’s what you’ve got to work with.”
The Sixers have also taken advantage of the brief windows between games. After getting drubbed by the Nets last Thursday, they went “live” with full-contact work during practice two days later, a rarity at this point of the season. But after flying to Orlando following that Saturday session and springing forward when the time changed overnight, they did not hold a Sunday morning shootaround before an overtime win over the Magic.
Following the three games in four nights between Friday and Monday, the Sixers will make their final West Coast road trip to play at the Los Angeles Lakers (Wednesday), Los Angeles Clippers (March 25) and Phoenix Suns (March 27). After that, four of their final eight games are against the lowly Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers, which could offer more enticing opportunities to sit players depending on where the Sixers are in the standings. Prior to Saturday’s games, just 3 games separated the second-place Milwaukee Bucks (44-26) and the fifth-place Chicago Bulls (41-29), with the Sixers in third at 43-26.
Yet Rivers noted the road map for rest is flexible. If a game is a blowout and rotation players do not log as many minutes, it could alter how they proceed moving forward. The coach has already identified Sunday as a night he would like to go deeper into his bench.
And when asked following Friday’s win if he expected to play both Sunday and Monday, Embiid said, “Yeah, but I’m gonna listen to [the staff].”
“I know they have options and they were going to talk to me,” Embiid said. “The goal is obviously to win a championship, and at some point, you’ve got to think about what’s gonna take us there. I have to be extremely fresh for the playoffs, so I would imagine I would sit a game or two to finish the year.”