Rivers lays out Sixers' options, approach to facing Heat without Embiid originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
None of the answers are easy, but Doc Rivers and the Sixers must find them.
After practicing Saturday, the Sixers faced plenty of questions related to one big topic: How will the team replace Joel Embiid, who's out indefinitely after suffering a right orbital fracture and mild concussion during the Sixers' Game 6, series-clinching win over the Raptors?
Rivers said the team will "play center by committee."
What exactly does that mean? Rivers did not rule out Paul Reed, DeAndre Jordan, Charles Bassey and Paul Millsap all appearing in the Sixers' second-round series against the Heat, which starts Monday night in Miami. Bassey, who missed the Toronto series with a right shoulder injury, was a full practice participant and among the Sixers to play in a post-practice scrimmage for low-minute players. So was the 37-year-old Millsap, who will finish April with zero game action of any kind.
"We may need all four guys," Rivers said. "Even if it's to burn minutes. ... (The Heat) shoot free throws well, so we don't want to play the whole series in the penalty. And two, getting some of our guys in foul trouble. Bam (Adebayo) does a great job of that. Jimmy Butler may be the best at it in the series now without Joel. And Kyle Lowry does it. So we just have to be very smart with how we plan our bigs."
Though Rivers seemingly aimed to resist revealing details beyond the Sixers' willingness to try all the options at their disposal, his evaluation of Reed's play against the Raptors was interesting.
"I thought Paul was terrific," Rivers said. "I thought the adjustment in Game 6 for Paul helped him -- because we were trying to figure out the best way to help him. And my first thought was play him with the starters more, because those minutes when he's with the other guys, there's a lot of mistakes. In (Game 6), we took Joel out early, and that way he played with four starters. I thought that helped him. And so we intend on doing that a lot."
That comment does not confirm Reed will start and be the Sixers' primary center, but it does suggest Rivers gained confidence in the 22-year-old. Still, Jordan's size and the threat he'd pose as a roller and lob finisher could potentially be viewed as advantages he'd have over Reed. Rivers mentioned the Sixers "need great rollers," since they expect Miami to trap pick-and-rolls often.
Jordan's positive qualities are almost entirely hypothetical at the moment, though. He played 39 minutes and 30 seconds in the Clippers' Round 1, Game 7 loss to the Jazz on April 30, 2017, posting 24 points. Since then, he's received 0.8 seconds of postseason playing time. He defended the inbounds pass on Toronto's final overtime play in Game 3.
"I did play last series," the good-natured veteran said. "They called me when they needed a little defense at the end."
Could Tobias Harris be yet another possibility at center? Rivers noted the Sixers expect Harris will spend time guarding Lowry, Butler and Adebayo this series. On paper, the team could think a traditional center is not necessary at all times because of Harris' physical strength and defensive versatility. That attitude could also perhaps enable Matisse Thybulle to play in "center-less" lineups where his offensive weaknesses are mitigated (and for Thybulle to guard Butler).
However, Rivers admitted Harris at the five won't be his first choice.
"They do one lineup where they put (P.J) Tucker in as a five," he said. "And then they do another one where they're pretty small. So I don't know if I want to do that, honestly, but we're willing to do whatever we need to do."
Another schematic idea that's imperfect but has some logical merit is employing zone defense as more than a change of pace. If that worked out, the Sixers could decrease the defensive responsibility and overall physical load on Harris, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, all of whom will likely exert considerable offensive energy and not sit on the bench much.
"Yeah, we had some good zone against them, as well," Rivers said. "We've played zone against them two games where it was pretty effective. But having said that, Joel really helps us in our zone, because he covers up stuff when we make mistakes. So we're going to need one of our bigs to have a really good presence."
On the other end of the floor, Harris knows he'll now be more of a ball handler and less of a catch-and-shoot, pick-his-spots player with the NBA's scoring champion out.
"We'll definitely play a little bit of a different style because we're missing those post-ups and whatnot," Harris said, "but that just means there's probably going to be added pick-and-roll play for us as a whole group. We can still be really efficient in that type of way."
Among the many Embiid questions up in the air is a rather simple and crucial one: When might he return?
As the Sixers prepare to face the Eastern Conference's top seed without him, it sounds like that matter will continue lingering.
Rivers was asked whether he hopes Embiid could be back in the second round.
"I don't know," he said. "There's hope, obviously, but I don't know. I just think we have to let him get through the process and see where he's at."