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May 25, 2021

Practice notes: Sixers balance time for on-court work and off-court issues

At the top of the priority list for Doc Rivers on Tuesday was a refocus on what they got wrong in Sunday's Game 1 vs. Washington. Transition defense, as Rivers explained later in his Zoom call with reporters, was so ugly in the first half that he could not even list all the things that went wrong in concise fashion. But before he got there, Rivers wanted to make sure a message came across loud and clear. It started with his t-shirt, featuring the words, "CALL YOUR SENATORS" in big, bold letters, urging them to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

"This is about the George Floyd bill. This is not political, the George Floyd bill. This has nothing to do with whether you're Republican or Democrat. I am the son of a police officer, I'm pro-police, this has nothing to do with being anti-police. The George Floyd bill, in my opinion, is a bill that both sides should want to pass. One of the key points is about police training so we can train our police officers better — I think every police officer would want that. 

"The fact that it takes six months to be a police officer and it takes a year and a half to get your barber's license tells you that we need more training... I'm a Democrat, I've called all my Republican friends — and I have a lot of them — to tell them this is a bill that should be passed. It should be bipartisan. It should have nothing to do with what side of the aisle you're on."

Rivers would not stop there, noting the specific policy features of the bill inspired by Floyd's murder. Qualified immunity, which has provided cops and other government officials protection from civil suits, is something Rivers believes should be looked at to weed out bad cops. As he would answer more questions about his willingness to speak out off the court, Rivers noted that we have seen waves of discrimination and violence committed on other minority communities over the past year, including (but not limited to) the AAPI and Jewish communities. 

Eventually, of course, he was eager to note that he is a basketball coach at the end of the day, that their goal to win a title would prove impossible to get sidetracked from. This is another area where Rivers has the track record to prove it — this is the coach who steered the L.A. Clippers through the final controversy of the Donald Sterling era, winning a playoff series against the Warriors with the eyes of millions beyond the sports world trained on them.

It's the unwinnable battle of being a public figure in 2021. Remain silent on the matters of the moment and a certain segment of the population will never look at you the same. Speak up, and you're often reduced to your job title, as if the angry accountant tweeting @Sixers over social justice messaging is more qualified to address hundreds of years of American history than a basketball coach. 

As Rivers tells it, all he's doing is something simple, succinct, and straightforward: speaking the truth.

"I never think I'm speaking out," Rivers said. "I really don't. I think I'm just speaking the truth. I'm not trying to be controversial. I am political and I need to, I try not to be. I like making fun of the other side just like they make fun of us, but I don't take any of it that serious. There's never a right time to speak truth, I guess, but now is the time, all the time. And I believe that. And if that rubs anyone wrong, then I'm sorry, but I'm not going to stop speaking the truth. Equality and justice, everybody should want that."

With that, the head coach pivots to basketball. How George Hill's versatility and ability to trap helps them in big moments during crunch time, even if he won't quite commit to Hill as a regular in the guts of the game. How Tyrese Maxey will blow you away with the work he puts in, even if he still lags behind (and knows he lags behind) on the defensive end of the floor. Notably, he finally busts out that list of concerns about their transition defense, a first-half disaster that he is happy they were able to fix in the middle of the game.

"It was a list, and I'm not joking," Rivers said when asked about what went wrong in transition. "Not matching up, running to your own men — buddy running is what we call it, balls in front but your man is next to you, you start buddy running with him instead of getting in front of the ball — and then communication. You know, there are two or three more if you want me to name them. But it's funny, man, you work a whole week and then that happens, you're looking around like what the heck, but we did fix it in-game, which is a big thing. And I thought Washington definitely got our attention by the way they played, there's no doubt about that."

Two minutes of Rivers' time on something he feels is important enough to speak up on, contrary to what a bad-faith critic would say, is not quite enough to undermine his ability to organize or focus on his team. It's not even enough to consume a full Zoom presser, with space afforded for people who are interested in what Rivers has to say on and off of the hardwood.

Maxey, for example, is someone everyone wants to talk about right now. Merely checking into the game on Sunday was enough to earn raucous applause from the Wells Fargo Center crowd, with Philadelphia's rookie quickly earning fan-favorite status this year. His arc is a motivational storyboard — the initial excellent flashes, the midseason swoon, and his bounce-back to end the season, showcasing increased maturity and refinement to his game. Plays that ended in runners are ending in layups and free throws, making him a surer bet to contribute as games get tougher and more physical.

Rivers, though he's in a position to do so, isn't eager to take much credit for Maxey blossoming under his watch. The Maxey you see today, Rivers says, is a product of unseen work the kid put in while the big-minute guys were resting and recuperating during a grueling season.

"Early on, you remember, everything was a floater, nobody else involved, and so for him to make that jump that quickly, it's more about him than any coaching that he's received or anything like that," Rivers said. "It speaks a lot about him as a's unbelievable, day of game, coming off of a back-to-back on the road, he's there that next morning like clockwork. Kid wants to be really good, and he listens. And he's really improved."

If there is a guiding belief in Rivers' coaching philosophy, it is treating his guys like the grown men that they are (even young Maxey). They have tough conversations, and when it comes to setting roles and making sure players are on the same page, Rivers is as firm and as forceful as the moment necessitates. But ultimately, he knows he can only present information before leaving it up to them to act on those discussions. That's true for basketball, where he has been blessed with a low-minute group that he claims works harder than any he has ever had, and it's true away from the game, with Rivers aware that not everyone chooses to assume the responsibility of public community spokesman. 

George Hill, one of Rivers' newer players and one of the team's elder statesmen, has made his priorities clear in recent years. He was one of Milwaukee's most outspoken players when the Bucks briefly created a work stoppage in the bubble last year following the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin last summer. Tuesday, he shared some of the reasons he chooses to speak up on these matters, rather than just punching the clock and sitting back.

"Most of those things hit home for me. I grew up in a rough neighborhood, I grew up in a family that's been involved with the police plenty of times," Hill said Tuesday. "I've seen it and it impacts me in a certain way. I have a bunch of AAU program kids in Indianapolis that look up to me and I had a lot of friends who played basketball who [are] either in jail for murder now or dead also. It's something that's always been instilled in me the way my parents raised me to speak up, to be a leader, not a follower. But at the same time, I grew up just the same way. I come from food stamps, I come from our lights getting turned off and sometimes we don't have food to put on the table, and life is bigger than the sport that we play."

The Game 2 previews and the X's and O's talk will come. Rivers and his group are deep in preparation for a battle with a team that will, at the very least, put the pedal to the metal and make them earn a series victory. Washington has star power, if nothing else, and they will almost certainly feel a bit more confident after hanging in the game through the final minute of Sunday's playoff opener.

The debates about Ben Simmons (which Hill thinks Simmons "shouldn't give two craps about") will persist. Rivers, as he did when referencing the size of the crowd on Sunday, will likely continue to poke fun at his political opponents. But this group stares forward with great clarity, able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

"We keep it about basketball," Rivers said. "Our goal is to win a title, we're not going to get sidetracked on that no matter what happens, But there is real life that goes on as well. And I really believe that my players should know what's going on out there, and so we try to do a good job to inform them, and we try to leave it up to them if they want to say something, do something, or be involved."

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