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May 18, 2021

Practice notes: Play-in tournament provides Sixers with late season training camp

Whether you love or hate the NBA's new play-in tournament, the Sixers are reaping the benefits of its existence right now. Following a regular season during which they could hardly find time to practice as a group, the Sixers have all week to sharpen up and re-focus after locking up the No. 1 seed. It's the closest they'll ever come, Doc Rivers says, to having training camp at the onset of the playoffs.

"It's a training camp for the playoffs," Rivers said. "Regular season, you're just learning how to play with each other. For the playoffs, you're fine-tuning what you already know. So that's what we're doing. We had a lot of slippage in the second half of the season, with all these guys missing games and the amount of games you have with a lack of practice, so it just gives us an opportunity to sharpen our tools."

It's a rare opportunity during an unorthodox season. When the Sixers were able to get practice days in this year, they came during rare stretches with two days off in a row, and those rest days were so precious that they couldn't go all-out in a way that facilitated major growth. A day here and there would be used to review concepts, but players admit the live sequences were few and far between. They have the space to make it happen before their playoff opener on the 23rd.

Here's the best news of all — Philadelphia's full roster was available for the first playoff-run practice of the year, with Matisse Thybulle rejoining his team after being held out of games as a precaution to protect his injured hand. With the starting group getting an off day for the final game of the season, some of the Sixers' most important players will have over a week between their last regular-season appearance and their first game in the playoffs. Now, the balancing act begins. How hard do you go day-to-day with this group, and what do you try to get done between now and their opening game on Sunday?

From the sound of things, it'll be a very simple formula: hard for the first two days, a light day Thursday, ramp it up again Friday, and then transition to a shootaround-level practice on Saturday to save their legs for the opener. The Sixers want to make sure they take advantage of the time they have without overdoing it and putting anyone in jeopardy before the games begin.

Looking down at the conference from their perch, they nonetheless feel like they have work to do. Philadelphia's dip in form down the stretch was mentioned multiple times by Rivers on Tuesday afternoon, a slide that appeared obvious in spite of the wins they were able to string together to lock up the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Offensive execution left quite a bit to be desired, and Rivers sees this week as an opportunity to get back to basics and focus on the things that got them here.

"Just making our cuts sharper, when different guys have the ball in the post, or different guys have it on the elbow, clean up our execution offensively," Rivers said Tuesday. "I really thought the slippage showed in a great way for us in the second half, last month of the season. I thought a lot of that [was] we were playing teams with injuries, you just mentally kind of slide. Just getting back to that I think is really important for us...especially with our spacing and cutting, I thought we got very lazy with that as well."

Transition defense, mind you, might be the No. 1 priority for the Sixers coming into camp. It was their biggest weakness during a great defensive season, and Rivers recently claimed they'd spend five days on it in the facility before the playoffs. Whether that's true or not, it's an area where a lot of ground can be made up through basic effort and attention to detail. Playoff-level commitment to getting stops is a completely different animal.

Fortunately for the Sixers, they have guys who have been around and know that. There are the older vets like Danny Green, George Hill and Dwight Howard, experienced core guys like Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons, and even some younger role players who have made appearances in the postseason before. They're aware of, as Rivers put it, the increased value of a single possession this time of year. There isn't as much room for error, whether that means turnovers or botched sets or tactical misfires on the coaching end, like a lineup combo that is doomed to fail. Above all else, they have to prepare for speed.

"The speed and the pace of the game picks up. Closeouts are stronger, weakside help is faster, so the game just cranks up another two, three, four notches," Harris said Tuesday. "The guys elevating, those are the guys that are maximizing that, maximizing the flow of the game, able to go out there and get into a good rhythm and just flow off of that rhythm...the focus level is the biggest thing. Focus level night in, night out is the biggest factor where the game elevates from."

At home, the Sixers are looking forward to some R&R and some hoops on TV. The head coach, who was cryptic when asked for his Philadelphia restaurant recommendations in the past, claims he'll have some Italian food from Saloon and a hearty meal from Steak 48 in front of him when he takes in the battles for the final playoff spots. Tobias Harris, who recently told reporters that a single day off felt like a vacation, is simply excited to watch competitive basketball from the comfort of his couch, with a reprieve from the relentless grind giving everyone a chance to reset.

The mental reset could be as valuable as the time to rest, recuperate, and train. With four possible opponents as of this writing, the Sixers are still playing the waiting game until the play-in tournament spits out an opponent. For now, the Sixers say they're working on a couple of different concepts from each team, each day until things are set in stone.

And if you believe the head coach, they wouldn't be too deep in the weeds on any one team yet anyway. They're the frontrunners in the conference, and they feel their energy will be most productive if they can channel it toward being the best version of themselves.

"We're pretty much focused on us right now. Honestly, let's say we knew our opponent, we probably wouldn't work on our opponent until Thursday anyway. I would say the first couple of days, we really would focus on what we do," Rivers said. 

Other notes

"How do you feel about the play-in tournament?" has been quite a popular question to players down the stretch of this season, either because reporters are genuinely interested or because league partners have been incentivized to drive up interest in these games that didn't exist pre-pandemic. LeBron James, for one, voiced strong opposition to the concept, but it is of course worth noting that this came when it was clear his own team was on a play-in trajectory.

Harris gave perhaps the best, most honest answer about the concept during his practice availability on Tuesday:

"I'm a fan because we aren't in it," Harris told reporters. "You feel me?"

One man's take: it's great to give players on top seeds a break and to add excitement to the end of the year, but I disagree on the foundational belief that it somehow makes more games more meaningful down the stretch. The tanking teams still tanked (and in some cases more aggressively), the fringe teams competed, and the top seeds went through various stages of mailing it in depending on the opponent. The end of the season sucks in the NBA and sucked worse this year than it probably ever has. This isn't the solution to that problem.

Seth Curry's bout with COVID-19 has faded from view down the stretch, with the sharpshooter playing some of his best (or at least most efficient) basketball in the final month of the season. Getting an in-form Curry for the playoffs would be absolutely massive for the Sixers, especially since Rivers expressed zero interest in toying with different starting groups after a wildly successful year.

Don't take that to mean that he's completely out of the woods. Though he hasn't had to use an inhaler before games a la Jayson Tatum, Curry said the Boston wing's comments about playing post-COVID sounded very similar to his day-to-day life. At this point, he says it's mostly about managing it and playing through it.

"It's kind of similar [to Tatum]. It's hard to explain, feel a little bit differently as a whole. The way I breathe at times is a little bit different, a little more fatigue," Curry said. "But pretty much healthy, coming back and just trying to work through it. I'm just trying to be patient with myself and hopefully get back all the way to the way I was feeling before. But I'm good enough to go and be back on the floor, so that's the good part."

Curry was ruled out due to a positive COVID test in early January. Here's hoping his long road with the side effects comes to an end at some point in the near future.

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