SAN FRANCISCO — Doc Rivers called it a “survival trip.” And the 76ers finally crossed the finish line late Wednesday.
The last two weeks were already a circle-the-calendar stretch in the Sixers’ 2021-22 season, a six-game trip primarily against Western Conference playoff teams that marked their longest period away from home. But then rotation player after rotation player went down to be put in health and safety protocols or nurse a minor injury.
That culminated with the Sixers beating Sacramento on Monday night without any starters from last season’s team available, forcing Rivers to turn to what he described as “crazy-ass lineups. Then, Philly fell to Golden State Wednesday in a whiplash game during which the Sixers built a 19-point lead, surrendered it and lost, 116-96. After finishing 2-4 on this trip, they will make the cross-country trip back to Philly with a 10-9 record.
“We kept ourselves above water, and that’s all we can do,” Rivers said before Wednesday’s shootaround. “... It’s not a fun trip, because you don’t want to drop games and games you think you would win if you were at full strength. But it’s been a good trip in a lot of ways.
“Spiritually, for our team, I think this has been a phenomenal trip. We just keep getting closer.”
The conclusion of this trip also nearly coincides with the 20-game mark, or unofficial quarter point of the season. It’s reasonable to conclude that, even with this decent sample size, we still don’t know much at all about these Sixers.
Rivers played 11 different starting lineups in the team’s first 19 games. Stars Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris had missed a combined 16 games entering Wednesday. The Ben Simmons saga continues to linger, making it unclear what type of return the Sixers could receive in a trade and how that player (or players) could impact the rest of the roster.
But here is what could be gleaned from the Sixers’ two weeks away from home.
His value has been obvious since Embiid morphed into an MVP contender and super-max player. But this trip has been a harsh reminder that there is a difference between playing shorthanded and playing without Embiid.
Even though Embiid struggled with his shot early in the season, his dominant presence opened things up for everybody else in an offense that was the most efficient in the NBA through 10 games (and still ranked third with 112.2 points per 100 possessions entering Wednesday).
It’s not a coincidence that Seth Curry and Furkan Korkmaz began struggling from beyond the arc once Embiid was no longer there to command double teams down low and force defenders into rotations. Embiid was also a strong facilitator in the early season, averaging four assists per game.
Embiid remained an All-Defensive player as he battled knee soreness to start the season, a glaring void that particularly showed itself in the Sixers’ poor performances in the first two games on this trip. Don’t forget how he helped stifle Chicago twice in one week, including a game-saving block on DeMar DeRozan in a Nov. 3 win.
Without Embiid, Andre Drummond is a starting-caliber center who can gobble up rebounds but has limitations as a finisher and decision-maker. Georges Niang, who has played a strenuous amount of minutes recently, has needed to shift to small-ball center and start at power forward at times.
Perhaps a silver lining of Embiid’s absence because of the virus is the emergence of rookie Charles Bassey, who had proved to coaches that he was ready for NBA minutes and then recorded 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting with seven rebounds and three blocks while often matching up against reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
Maxey is legit
As Tyrese Maxey sat down at a table for his postgame press conference, he flashed his signature wide grin and joked, “What if I said, ‘I’m not doing media?’”
It was a relevant question given that the affable Maxey has already become a mainstay at postgame press conferences and an early contender for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. That’s another sign of his rapid development as a 21-year-old starting point guard.
Maxey is taking care of the ball, totaling 88 assists against 12 turnovers. He was shooting 39.3% from three-point distance and 51% from the floor entering Wednesday. He is hanging in there defensively while guarding dangerous score-first point guards. And he remains fearless while getting into the paint, often capping those trips with crafty finishes off the glass and through contact.
“His development has happened very quick and he’s definitely turned into a killer,” Niang said. “The kid just gets the ball and you turn and you think you’re running somewhere and the next thing you know, he’s taking off and doing that funky right-handed layup that seems to go in every time.”
Perhaps the biggest development in the Simmons trade market is Maxey’s development, and whether he will become untouchable in those talks.
Out of necessity, Rivers believes he and his staff have discovered some lineup combinations and strategy on both ends of the court — such as deliberately slowing the game down in Sacramento — that can be applied in the future when various players are battling foul trouble or injuries.
Yet team building goes beyond deciphering the on-court puzzle. The Sixers’ collective mood through the trip was part realistic about the circumstances, part optimistic about what the Sixers can be at full strength and part candid about not making excuses.
Rivers after the blowout loss in Utah: “There’s nobody here, like, worried. It’s just a long season and you go through these when you have the injuries we have and the games that we’ve played. Listen, I want to win every game, but I do understand what we’re under right now.”
Harris after the Denver win: “For us going forward, that has to be our barometer of how we play, no matter if the shots are falling or not. That type of focus and energy on both ends of the floor is key for us.”
Niang after a loss at Portland: “To be honest with you, I hope you’re not going out of the way to make that an excuse for losing.”
Maxey after the Sacramento win: “You can persevere through anything. When the times get hard, you don’t separate. You come together. And I think that’s one thing that we’re gonna try to build on.”
Sixers players maintain that they enjoy spending time with each other off the court. That their chemistry remains strong. That they have embraced the next-man-up mentality.
Those sentiments can sound cliché to outsiders, but they are critical to ensuring a season does not derail early due to unfortunate situations. And they can shine through in games like the grind-it-out victory against the Kings, or in the aftermath of a deflating loss at Golden State.
Brooklyn, Chicago and Miami have emerged at the top of the Eastern Conference the day before Thanksgiving, which essentially doubles as the quarter mark of the season.
The rest of the conference is muddled.
Earlier this week, five teams were all tied with 9-8 records, with the Sixers at the bottom in 10th place in the conference because of their records in the division (0-4) and conference (5-6).
Washington (11-7) and Charlotte (12-8) have been the East’s surprise teams thus far, but it’s reasonable to expect that they will come back down to earth a bit as the season progresses. It’s also reasonable to expect that defending-champion Milwaukee (11-8), which has battled numerous injuries in the early season, will climb back up to the top of the standings.
That leaves the Sixers battling for positioning somewhere in the middle. An early six-game winning streak certainly helped Philly ease the blow of this rough stretch. But once Embiid returns and Harris, Curry, and Danny Green heal from their minor injuries, the Sixers must establish a rhythm to avoid teetering in play-in-game territory for long stretches of the regular season.
Count Rivers as someone who believes another upswing is on the horizon.
“I just know we’re gonna hang in there, and then we’re gonna make a big run,” Rivers said. “I feel that coming. I can’t tell you when, but it’s gonna happen.”