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Sixers survive season’s toughest road stretch, but schedule does not let up

After this week’s jaunt to Boston, Atlanta and Charlotte, coach Doc Rivers said his team's "head is above water."

Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Washington knocks the ball away from Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid during the first half of an NBA basketball game on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Washington knocks the ball away from Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid during the first half of an NBA basketball game on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)Read moreChris Carlson / AP

CHARLOTTE — When Matisse Thybulle needs to decompress, he will pick up a pen and draw. Or, sometimes, the 76ers wing will aimlessly float in the hotel pool.

“Just playful things to feel like a kid again. I feel like this is stuff that helps me,” Thybulle said before the Monday’s shootaround. " ... Letting go of your mind and letting creativity and your consciousness flow is genuinely what I try to do to try and get some distance and some freshness.”

Those mental respites have been necessary for Thybulle and the Sixers during the past month.

Wednesday’s 110-106 victory against the Hornets completed their most demanding road stretch of the season: 10 out of 12 games — or 22 of 27 days — away from Philly. It was a slate that extended to the Mountain (Utah and Denver) and Pacific time zones (Portland, Sacramento, Golden State), then crossed back East on a Thanksgiving Eve red-eye flight. It ended two weeks later with a five-day, two-game stint in Charlotte, a new scheduling quirk the NBA implemented last season to reduce travel during the height of the pandemic.

After the Sixers finished the first chunk of this stint — going 2-4 primarily against Western Conference postseason contenders that were all played without star Joel Embiid and partially played without Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Danny Green, and Seth Curry — coach Doc Rivers was glad the Sixers “survived.”

And after this week’s 3-1 jaunt to Boston (an 88-87 loss), Atlanta (a 98-96 comeback win), and Charlotte (two tight victories against the COVID-impacted Hornets) to propel their record to 14-11?

“I’ll take it,” Rivers said. “And that’s the point. Put them in the win column. Keep growing. Keep getting better. Know that you’re not a perfect team yet, nor will you ever be. But just keep getting better.

“Our guys have the want-to attitude to keep improving. We’re gonna keep doing that. While we’re doing that, let’s keep winning games.”

While rolling through the recent round of games, reserve forward Georges Niang quipped, “Who created that schedule?!” When Rivers received an early draft during the summer, he immediately recognized this would be a challenging stretch. But he has also refused to use it as an excuse, reminding that “I guarantee you everybody’s going to play 82 games” with some less-than-ideal spells.

“I don’t make a big deal about the schedule,” Rivers said. “I never have, never will.”

The good news: The Sixers got through this grueling period during the season’s first 25 games, when hypothetically there is less physical wear and tear on players from the season’s grind. But the timing also came with a dose of bad luck, because it coincided with Embiid’s and Thybulle’s bouts with COVID-19, a slew of minor injuries to multiple rotation players and the ongoing Ben Simmons situation. Niang, Andre Drummond, and Furkan Korkmaz are the only Sixers to play in every game since Nov. 13.

Even the brief return home was not much of a break. The Sixers’ late-night flight from San Francisco landed early Thanksgiving morning in Philly, naturally messing with body clocks. They split their two games against Minnesota and Orlando on Nov. 27 and 29, then departed again the following afternoon for Boston. On this leg, Harris continued to battle sickness that he believes could be COVID-19 aftereffects, and starting point guard Tyrese Maxey also missed one game with a non-COVID illness.

Philly had its opening-night starting lineup intact for only three times during this period. That forced Rivers to play different personnel groupings that the coach believes will benefit his team down the road. Embiid started to like his old self during the past three games, hitting the game-winner Friday against Atlanta as part of a 28-point performance, exploding for a season-high 43 points in Monday’s overtime win over the Hornets and then converting multiple clutch shots on a 32-point night during Wednesday’s rematch. After struggling in down-to-the-wire games earlier in the season, Philly’s overall fourth-quarter execution improved to secure those three wins in a row.

“Resilience, fight, grit,” Maxey said of his biggest takeaways from this period of the season. " ... The last couple games have just really shown just our toughness, to be able to win down the stretch.”

During the down time away from home, players put a premium on taking care of their minds and bodies.

Harris is skilled at picking restaurants, including a Mediterranean joint in Portland that Korkmaz particularly enjoyed. Embiid spent a lot of time video chatting with his baby son and fiance. Niang selectively chose when spend nights out to dinner and when to stay in the room, with the goal of reaching nine hours of sleep each day between naps and through-the-night rest.

Drummond concurred with Niang’s approach, saying “more times than not, it’s just rest … rest, rest, rest.”

This grueling stretch concluded with a rare five-day stint in Charlotte, where players and staffers could enjoy mild early-December temperatures while walking to and from the Spectrum Center. The extended stay provided time for Rivers to play a round of golf on Saturday, and to attend a family funeral out of town on Monday. Curry, who grew up in the city, visited with loved ones at his family’s home.

“We’re gonna start paying North Carolina taxes,” Rivers joked, “which may be a blessing.”

» READ MORE: Sixers beat Charlotte, 110-106, marking the 16th consecutive victory over the Hornets

The Sixers get no scheduling favors when they return to Philly. They immediately face the Utah Jazz, who smacked Philly 120-85 in Salt Lake City on Nov. 16, on Thursday night. Then, they take on the 20-4 Golden State Warriors Saturday — on a night when Seth’s brother, Stephen, could be in position to break the NBA’s all-time three-point record — before leaving again Sunday for a one-game trip to Memphis.

After that, they will play six games before Christmas. Trade season also unofficially begins Wednesday, when most players who signed new contracts this past summer can be moved. This could eventually reshape the Sixers’ roster if a deal involving Simmons ever materializes.

Philly then plays five road games in January, going the furthest West on a back-to-back trip to San Antonio (Jan. 23) and Houston (Jan. 24). No trip the rest of the season is longer than three games, and only one is to the West Coast (at Clippers on March 25, at Lakers on March 27 and at Phoenix on March 29).

That will present Thybulle with fewer opportunities to freehand draw or aimlessly float in a pool. But that’s a good thing, because it means the Sixers’ toughest travel stretch of the season is complete.

“Head is above water,” Rivers said of the current state of his team. “And we have a chance to get it going if we can have some health.”