Doc Rivers and the 76ers used boxing analogies to describe the physicality the Miami Heat brought throughout their Eastern Conference semifinal series. And the Heat delivered the knockout in Thursday’s Game 6, eliminating the Sixers with a 99-90 victory that was not as close as the final score indicated.
“Obviously, Miami took the fight to us, and we didn’t respond,” reserve forward Georges Niang said Friday afternoon from the Sixers’ practice facility. “ … Someone’s throwing haymakers, and you’re struggling to get a punch off. I’m not saying that we quit, but I think lack of focus, at certain times, you dig yourself into a hole.
“You have to be really mentally strong to get up and fight back out of that, and I think there were points in both Games 5 and 6 where we didn’t have that. And that’s what happens when a team has you on the ropes.”
Emotions were still raw for the Sixers Friday, following the season’s abrupt end. Yet before and after a team meeting in Camden, players who did not speak during Thursday’s postgame news conference cycled through a media session to reflect and look ahead to the summer.
Reserve wing Matisse Thybulle acknowledged earlier this week that his confidence dipped during the playoffs, the product of inconsistent availability in the first round against the Toronto Raptors because he was ineligible to travel to and play in Canada because he is unvaccinated against COVID-19.
Consider that a consequence of his choice. Yet Thybulle said Friday that, even with the benefit of hindsight, he would make the same decision.
“There’s nothing I would change in my life,” Thybulle said. “Everything I’ve done to this point is making me who I am. For better or worse, I’m happy with that.”
Thybulle relinquished his starting role to Danny Green and, when he played, defenses consistently treated him like a non-factor on offense. Thybulle averaged three points on 45.8% shooting (28.6% from three-point range), one rebound, 0.8 steals and 0.8 blocks in 15 minutes over nine games played.
Thybulle got an opportunity for early playing time in Game 6, after Green tore two ligaments in his knee. He went 1-of-4 from the floor — an and-1 dunk and free throw in the first quarter — for three points and added two steals and one block.
Paul Reed emerging as the Sixers’ backup center to MVP finalist Joel Embiid was a surprising playoff development.
The second-year big man hopes he has now gained the trust of Rivers and his teammates. Reed averaged 3.7 points on 52.8% shooting and 3.8 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game during the playoffs, while unleashing his trademark high-energy style. But he focused on being more consistent in his on-court movements, and in reading defenses to know when to screen, when to cut and when to space the floor.
“I’m going to compete with anybody and I’m not scared,” Reed said. “I’m not going to back down. I ain’t gonna fold. I knew that about myself going into it, but now I feel like the organization [knows] that’s about me.
“They know I’m going to go out there, I’m gonna play hard, make plays, make things happen for my team, make winning plays. I think now the team got more confidence in me.”
Reed, though, did notice the playoffs’ uptick in physicality. That’s why he will prioritize increasing his strength and athleticism while training in Atlanta this summer. He has a goal — which he regards as ambitious but others may call unrealistic — of adding between 10 and 15 inches to his vertical leap, “so I can jump higher, block more shots, get more rebounds [and] dunk on more people,” he said.
“If you see me next year jumping out of the gym,” Reed said, “you know why.”
Earlier this week, Niang downplayed a knee injury that kept him out of the regular season’s final two games and that Rivers recently mentioned had still been bothering the reserve forward throughout the playoffs.
That perhaps contributed to Niang’s torrid shooting start that rapidly turned cold. He made 66.7% of his three-point attempts against the Raptors, and just 16% of his shots from beyond the arc against the Heat. That includes an 0-for-7 clunker in Game 1 and an 0-for-6 outing in Game 5 against the Heat.
Now, Niang has the opportunity to rest and heal that knee.
“We’ll get imaging and see what’s going on there,” Niang said. “I don’t think it’s anything serious, but it’s something that I need to take care of so I can be 100 percent. It wouldn’t be fair to my teammates if my health [wasn’t] something that I take care of over the offseason to get back and be better for next year.”
Reserve wing Furkan Korkmaz candidly reflected on his “rough” shooting season, when he connected on a career-worst 38.7% of his field goals and 28.9% of his three-pointers.
That was a major factor in Korkmaz falling out of the rotation during the regular season and playoffs. Yet he assured that he has identified the issue with his shot and the solution, though he declined to go into detail about either.
“I don’t need to say it right now, but I know what is the problem [and] I know what is the answer,” Korkmaz said. “So it’s not going to be hard for me to find it and keep getting better. … I have big confidence in myself, and I’m not going to give up. I’m just gonna keep pushing it to be the best version of myself.”
When asked about his long-term future with the Sixers, Korkmaz noted that he has two seasons remaining on his contract signed last summer. He also displayed this season that he could be a secondary ballhandler in a pinch, when COVID-19 ripped through the Sixers during the winter omicron surge.
Recalling an unexpected postgame scene caused tears to well in Rivers’ eyes following Thursday’s game. The coach shared that veteran big man Paul Millsap turned emotional in the locker room, because the Sixers’ loss to Miami might have been his last NBA game.
The 37-year-old Millsap was a four-time All-Star with the Atlanta Hawks and a respected presence throughout his career. He came to Philly in the James Harden trade, but was miscast as a backup center and played in just nine regular-season games and one playoff game. Millsap also dealt with a family situation this season, causing him to go back to his home in Atlanta when he and the Brooklyn Nets mutually decided to seek a trade and during a brief absence from the Sixers.
“I think people, after losses, think it’s just me or Joel [Embiid] or James [Harden] taking it hard,” Rivers said. “I mean, I’m looking at this guy [Millsap]† He’s given his whole career to basketball, and he’s in there crying after the game. For me, that was really sad.
“So many of these guys, they give it to the city. They give everything they have, and sometimes it’s just not good enough.”