Three Critical Game 7 Decisions for Doc Rivers
A potential Game 7 starting lineup change and more
Adam Aaronson, whose legal name is Sixers Adam (@SixersAdam on Twitter), covers the Sixers for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. He believes cantaloupe is the best food in existence, and is brought to you by the Official Realtor of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
On Sunday afternoon, the Philadelphia 76ers play their single most important game in more than two decades. With a win, they arguably become favorites to win the NBA Finals, with homecourt advantage for the remainder of the playoffs. With a loss, they suffer an excruciating second round exit yet again, and in turn their entire organization will be put on trial. Joel Embiid’s ability to lead a winning team will be scrutinized. James Harden may take off his Sixers uniform and trade it in for his old Houston Rockets jersey. In short: everything hinges on what happens at the TD Garden in Game 7.
If you want more on the magnitude of this game, you need to read what MOC wrote yesterday. But now, let’s discuss the game itself. Sixers Head Coach Doc Rivers has some massive decisions to make. Here’s what I’ll be watching for:
Joel Embiid’s minutes
I’m sorry in advance for typing this, but here it goes: Embiid played in 45 and a half minutes of 2019’s second round Game 7 against the Toronto Raptors, and the Sixers outscored Toronto by 10 points in that time. In two and a half minutes without Embiid, they were outscored by 12. What should have been a win turned into a franchise-altering loss because of the team’s sheer incompetence when it came to playing without Embiid.
That team did not have Harden. They also did not have a backup center who could play at the level Paul Reed has in his best moments of the playoffs.
For years now, all we have talked about is the Sixers finding a backup center who can just provide eight to 10 decent minutes in playoff games. And in a general sense, that remains what the Sixers should be looking for. But this is not just any playoff game. And so, I pose the following questions: is Embiid capable of playing all 48 minutes? And if not, how many minutes can he play? More money would likely be on the answer to the first question question being no, especially given his knee injury — but it is worth exploring.
Embiid played 46 minutes in Game 4 (with five of them coming in overtime). He also played 41 regulation minutes in Game 6. So let’s say that about 41 minutes is his baseline. Are we sure the combination of adrenaline and the pivotal extra day off between Games 6 and 7 cannot combine to afford Rivers a bit more leeway with how he uses the NBA’s Most Valuable Player?
Fatigue is of course an issue always worth worrying about, especially with a player like Embiid. It’s plagued the Sixers in earlier portions of this series. But those games were not this one.
Who is the fifth starter?
PJ Tucker has been the Sixers’ fifth starter for the entire regular season and all of the playoffs. But when the Celtics wisely inserted Robert Williams III into their starting lineup in place of Derrick White, allowing Williams III to cause the Sixers massive offensive issues as a roamer — instead of defending Tucker, the Celtics are having Williams III play free safety, and his combination of length and athleticism make him dangerous in that role.
After Game 6, I asked Rivers about what went into deciding whether to close with Tucker, Georges Niang or De’Anthony Melton (who each had brief chances late in the game).
“We’ll put [Tucker] on the floor more when there’s one [Boston] big, we’ll put [Niang] or [Melton] on the floor when there’s two,” Rivers said.
Clearly, the Sixers understand that Tucker being on the floor at the same time as Williams III is a problematic matchup. And so, when the Celtics go with their double-big starting lineup again, Rivers should absolutely counter by starting Melton or Niang in Tucker’s place and only using Tucker when the Celtics cannot use his presence to ruin the Sixers’ offensive flow.
In past difficult matchups for Tucker, Rivers has usually started the veteran before pulling him after a few minutes when things do not go as planned. But in a game like this, the Sixers of all people should know that every single possession is crucial. They simply cannot shy away from any chance to create a marginal advantage for the sake of “consistency,” often the inspiration of those who advocate against changing starting lineups.
Every opponent will present a different set of problems. One problem the Boston Celtics cause is PJ Tucker not being able to survive offensively against big lineups. Rivers must consider the massive value of every single minute of this game and completely optimize his lineup construction. He can do so by removing Tucker from the starting unit. Tucker certainly should log minutes in this game — but when Embiid and Williams III take center court for the jump ball, it should be Niang or Melton playing alongside Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, Harden and Embiid.
How many guys will play?
Rivers has long preferred a nine-man rotation in the playoffs, which is what he has primarily used so far in these playoffs. But he went with eight players in the Game 4 win over Boston, removing Jalen McDaniels from the rotation, and it worked. Rivers then went back to nine, using Danuel House Jr. in McDaniels’ place. He is likely considering trimming the rotation again in Game 7.
I only view seven players as locks to see the floor: Embiid, Harden, Maxey, Harris, Tucker, Melton and Niang. Reed could absolutely see action assuming Embiid does not go the distance, though Rivers could also opt to use Tucker at the five when Embiid rests. House Jr. was terrific in Game 5, and I remain a fan of what he brings to the table, but his stints in Game 6 were not particularly productive.
Embiid, Harden, Maxey and Harris will undoubtedly all log at least 40 minutes (barring an injury or foul trouble). Let’s bump that number up a bit and say that, hypothetically, the four of them average 42 minutes. That leaves 72 minutes to be eaten up by some combination of Tucker, Melton, Niang and perhaps Reed or House Jr.
Coaching in the playoffs is not easy. Doc Rivers has pushed most of the right buttons to this point — but he has his work cut out for him now.