NBA playoff race: Sixers juggling health in race for East's top spot

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Noah Levick
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Sixers juggling health, race for No. 1 seed with schedule about to get easier originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Doc Rivers wasn’t pleased with the way the Sixers defended Thursday night during their 124-117 loss to the Bucks.

The Sixers’ head coach also wasn’t happy that the NBA’s schedule makers put the team in a position where a win would’ve felt like an upset. 

“It’s funny, right when schedules come out, you look at schedules and then you compare them,” he said. “When I saw this — home against Phoenix and then Milwaukee ... you look immediately to see what Milwaukee’s doing. And you’re assuming they’re playing a back-to-back. You find out they have three days off, you’re like, this is a schedule loss. 

“We’re going to have to be superhuman to come in here. And then what really hurts us on the back end of this, we don’t have a lot of time to recover. We play again at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. It’s disappointing when I saw it. What it told me is they didn’t think they’d be where we would be. That was my first thought. But it is what it is. We’ve got to suck it up, and we’ll be ready Saturday.”

Three days off is a slight exaggeration; Milwaukee played Monday and then spent two days at home before facing the Sixers. 

The insinuation of preseason disrespect for the Sixers is curious in light of their remaining schedule. Even with that Saturday afternoon game next on the docket, the Sixers’ final 13 games are the easiest in the league, according to Tankathon. These things tend to balance out over a long season.

On paper, the Sixers are still well-positioned to earn the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed after three consecutive losses, although the team’s injuries and absences continue to be a nuisance. The Sixers and Nets both sit at 39-20. Milwaukee clinched the regular-season series over the Sixers Thursday and is 2.5 games back. Rivers called the chances of Ben Simmons returning Saturday from his non-COVID illness “50-50 at best.”

“Clearly, it’s more serious,” he said. “Not serious to where he’s going to miss a lot of games, but it’s more serious than we hoped for because he’s still missing games, and we just need him to get well.”

Furkan Korkmaz also missed Thursday’s loss with a right ankle sprain.

The good injury news for the Sixers was that Tobias Harris and Seth Curry played in Milwaukee. As one might have expected, Harris said the right knee injury that had sidelined him for three games was more than mere “soreness.”

“I had a bone bruise,” he said, “so for me it was just allowing that time to heal, and to be able to wake up and be pain-free — to be able to do those types of movements on the floor. A lot of it was just rest and recovery for myself. Being out there, it’s just about finding that balance and that rhythm. It was good mentally, for my confidence, to know that I was able to play and not feel anything — to not feel any pain in that area and to be able to have that confidence going forward."

Harris is hopeful that improved team-wide health coincides with enough wins to clinch the East’s top seed. 

“I would say everybody’s got to get healthy, that’s No. 1,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to arrive at the playoffs with a healthy group ... mentally and physically. And just be focused and locked in on the main goal. … As we finish all those games out, obviously there’s a race for whichever seeding it is. We want to be the No. 1 seed. That’s been our goal from the beginning of the year. We’ve got to do that the best way we can with getting everybody healthy. From there, play our game and do what we have to do to win basketball games.”

Though the Sixers could not overcome an unfortunate scheduling quirk and Simmons’ illness, there’s little time to dwell on anything this season. The team has three back-to-backs left and only one more instance with two days in between games. 

“We’ve got to realize teams are going to give us their best shot every night,” Shake Milton said, “so it’s going to be important for us to be locked in on all the details, specifically like transition defense, boxing our man out and making sure we’re getting rebounds so that we can go play on the offensive end. As we move closer to the playoffs, just tightening it up on details and making sure we’re rock-solid.”