Sometimes Doc Rivers is an open book explaining strategy, the rationale behind a play call, the factors he’s weighing ahead of a matchup.
Other times, he’s much more cagey. Sunday afternoon was one of those occasions.
Asked whether he’d decided on the player that will start in place of Danny Green, who has a right calf strain and will be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks, the Sixers head coach said, “I pretty much know, but no would be my answer right now.”
Questioned later on what he’s looking for in a replacement starter, Rivers offered nothing more than this: “What I’m looking for is a 76er.”
Eventually, he provided a little further detail.
“Being honest, without joking, it is a decision we’re going to have to make on what’s more important: the extra defender or the extra floor spacer,” he said. “That was one of the things with Danny. Danny was so good defensively in a lot of cases that you got a little bit of both. So we’ve got to make that decision.”
Rivers could be bluffing, of course, but the two names that answer seems to hint at are Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle.
The case for Thybulle is that he forms a formidable defensive backcourt with Ben Simmons. When that pairing played together during the regular season, the Sixers forced turnovers on 18.9 percent of opponents’ possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That figure ranked in the 99th percentile.
Thybulle got the first crack at Green’s spot Friday in the Sixers’ Game 3 win over the Hawks. He only played 17 minutes, though, fouling out in the fourth quarter.
Korkmaz scored 11 first-quarter points in Game 3, and he started the second half. Defense has historically been an issue with Korkmaz, though he did well on Kevin Huerter. Following a 20-point Game 2, Huerter had three points on 1-for-4 shooting and no assists when guarded by Korkmaz.
“He’s really just playing hard, honestly,” Rivers said. “I think he gets me better now, knowing that I don’t like football players — meaning I love the game of football, but I don’t like it played in basketball. You don’t get to play offense and then go rest. Two-way players are very important.
“Furk is doing all the little things that are required out of him. We’re not asking him to be Ben, but we’re asking him to be a better version of himself defensively. And I think he’s doing that.”
The Sixers are not the only team in this second-round series that might alter its starting five. Atlanta has yet to find a real solution for De’Andre Hunter’s absence. With Hunter sidelined for the playoffs by a lateral meniscus tear, Solomon Hill has started each game. He’s been thoroughly ineffective, shooting 2 for 11 from the floor.
Tony Snell opened the second half of Game 3. Snell is known to provide accurate spot-up shooting but not much beyond that offensively. He hasn’t scored in the series. If Korkmaz defends Hill or Snell, that likely won’t worry the Sixers.
The more concerning matchup, at least on paper, would be Seth Curry against Bogdan Bogdanovic. That wasn’t a problem Friday, however, and perhaps the Sixers will feel Curry is capable of managing again.
As for Green, Rivers said he returned to Philadelphia to receive treatment from Sixers doctors. He’ll be around the team as he aims for a return.
“We want him around,” Rivers said. “I’m telling you, he’s very important, and so we’ve got to have him around our guys. That’s very important for our guys, especially in situations where the game gets a little out of control, emotions get out of control. Danny’s a flatliner. You need guys like that on your bench, on your team, because he has that calming effect on a lot of our guys. … When everybody’s going helter-skelter, Danny’s going at Danny’s speed, at Danny’s pace.
“His heart rate is probably flat. And those guys are very important to have on your basketball team, because the other guys see that. And we don’t have that anymore, at least on the floor, so we’re hoping he can give us as much as he can with his voice.”
According to George Hill, a friend of Green’s since their days together on the Spurs, the veteran wing hasn’t stopped communicating with his teammates .
“He’s in great spirits,” Hill said. “He’s a tough-minded guy. Ever since I’ve known him, he’s a competitor. He’s still texting every day. This morning, he’s still texting. He told everybody to take care of business and do it for him, because he’ll be back soon. We’re optimistic about his return and we know he’s going to do everything in his power to try to get back out here and help this team win a championship this year.”