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June 10, 2021

How should Doc Rivers handle Sixers' bench in Game 3?

You know it, I know it, and Doc Rivers almost certainly knows it. Philadelphia's bench has been a problem in these playoffs, and will almost certainly be an even bigger problem if they manage to make it to the conference finals or further. An emergency substitution of a player who was out of the rotation saved the Sixers in Game 2, but that hardly seems like a reliable feat to replicate from game to game moving forward.

The question is simple: who should take the floor in Game 3, and how does the rotation take shape based on those decisions?

The staggering problem

After catching heat for using an all-bench lineup with the team already trailing in Game 1, Doc Rivers came back with a plan to stagger in Game 2. Unfortunately, the Sixers dealt with a downside for the starters with no improved upside for the bench as a result of that plan — Tobias Harris was yanked in the middle of a hot stretch, and the second unit still drowned in the first half, losing the battle 32-0 to Atlanta's bench.

While that decision didn't exactly work for Philadelphia, I don't know that there's a good option for Rivers to turn to here. Harris is the obvious choice of the three stars to play with their usual bench group, because it creates the least amount of problems for the remaining starters left on the floor and provides a safety valve for the second unit when he comes back in.

Under the assumption that Dwight Howard is going to be in the rotation — and we'll revisit that in a second — you can't sub out Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons first without eventually arriving at a lineup that puts Howard and Simmons on the floor at the same time. He's either coming in to replace Embiid on an early sub, or he's there when Simmons checks back in to be the lone star on the floor.

Those Simmons/Howard lineups have continued to be a disaster in the playoffs, admittedly in a very small sample:

Lineup NET RTG 
 Simmons, Howard on floor (playoffs) —7.2
 Simmons, Howard on (regular season) —8.8
 Simmons on, Howard off (playoffs)+23.7 

In other words, you should not be going to a lineup that includes that pairing under almost any circumstances. If that's the starting point, then Harris absolutely has to be the guy who comes out (and comes back) first.

Whether Howard should be a nailed-on piece of the rotation is another story, one that sees more debate on social media than it seems to in the head coach's office. Small ball became necessary at the end of Philadelphia's series against Washington, with Ben Simmons the nominal "center" as the biggest guy on the floor for Philadelphia. And there's perhaps a better case to use these lineups against Atlanta, a team interested in downsizing with no true bigs behind Clint Capela. Howard needing to defend from the rim to the three-point line can get quite messy at times.

If you're expecting small ball to take Philly to a new level, we're still waiting for the results to back up that thesis. Over 103 possessions in the playoffs logged by Cleaning The Glass, lineups without Embiid or Howard on the floor are 0.5 points better than the opponent. That's admittedly much better than Howard lineups, but the defensive numbers are horrible, with Philadelphia giving up 122.8 points per 100 possessions without a big on the floor. That's downright ugly, and the most-used lineup (Simmons-Harris-Thybulle-Green-Curry) is even worse, butchered for 138.5 points per 100 possessions. Again, we're talking about small samples, but it follows a trend of small-ish lineups struggling on defense for Philly in recent years.

If you were asking me to set up the rotation, I would lean into those small looks in spite of those defensive woes. They're closer to working than the Simmons-Howard combo, and they're most likely going to be even more important if the Sixers advance to the Conference Finals and beyond. 

But I am operating under the premise that Rivers will lean traditional. Howard has been through some wars and has never had his place in the team questioned this season. So let's look elsewhere.

The Shake Milton/Tyrese Maxey decision

Philadelphia's rookie point guard was one of the great stories of their opening-round victory over Washington. Maxey was rewarded for his efforts with a prominent spot in the rotation to open the series, and the good vibes have disappeared almost immediately. 

That's not a knock against Maxey, who is ahead of schedule based on his first-round contributions alone. But going it alone and trying to prop up the Sixers' bench with his individual shot creation has proven a much tougher task against Atlanta than it was against the Wizards, which is not shocking when you compare the quality of the defenses and teams involved.

After looking composed in the opening series, there have been times where the moment is just a little too big for him, uncharacteristic mistakes bleeding into his game. The most egregious was Maxey stepping out of bounds while trying to push the ball up the floor for a buzzer-beating attempt in Game 1, a mistake he was fortunate not to have punished on the ensuing Atlanta possession.

In Game 2, a more troublesome pattern emerged. Maxey's defensive effort has never been in question, but there were still issues on that end. The Hawks got some favorable switches to get Maxey matched up with Danilo Gallinari, who was happy to simply shoot over Maxey when given the opportunity.

Mind you, Milton is not exactly a stout defender and has been caught taking silly foul after silly foul this season. But he's a bit bigger than the younger Maxey, with the length to bother shooters if he must, and he might be bouncing back at the right time. Ultimately, this is a battle that will be determined by their offensive contributions, and Milton has a larger body of work to point to. 

So far, Maxey's minutes seem to come at the expense of minutes for Milton, and vice versa. Milton's standout second half in Game 2 would suggest the rookie could be riding the pine in Atlanta, but Rivers wouldn't go that far quite yet, simply noting that he's going to roll with the proverbial hot hand.

“We have a plethora of guards who can play, they all can’t play every night. So what we want to do is keep them in rhythm," Rivers said Thursday. "If you play well, you keep playing. If not, there’s a guy pushing you, which will pull you along as well.”

Perhaps Rivers will end up finding room for both guys on the floor, together or separately. Furkan Korkmaz, who had a howler of a first half on Tuesday, played just 1:37 of spot duty in the second half. With his shot disappearing, Korkmaz making way for another guard makes sense for Philly. The Hawks are down multiple wings — ironically, their two Philly-area guys in Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter — and if Rivers wants to bet on increased shot creation making up for issues related to size, using all three "point guards" is an interesting thought.

Frankly, Rivers has every right to come into Game 3 with a relatively conservative approach. The Sixers have been the better team for 3-of-4 halves in this series, and their own self-inflcited wounds were to blame in the exception to that rule. Simply swapping Milton in for Maxey (or even leaving the rotation alone altogether) could be the move for Philadelphia. They are justified to carry themselves like frontrunners, at least to some extent.

But questions about the second unit aren't going away, and Rivers should be prepared for the Hawks to make his boys feel uncomfortable on the road. 

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