As soon as news broke that Joel Embiid would miss at least the first two games against the Miami Heat after he suffered a concussion and orbital bone fracture in the closing contest against the Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers had to know he needed to get creative to win one on the road.
He got so creative that he played 32 different lineups in the Sixers' 106-92 loss in Game 1 on Monday. That is wild for a single contest, especially during the playoffs when rotations often shrink.
Rivers even said in his pregame press conference, "It's a hard game to script without your big guy."
He threw nearly every combination he could on the court. And despite plenty of struggles, Rivers might have found a beacon of hope.
Right out of the gate, though, Rivers went conventional and started DeAndre Jordan. It's clear with Bam Adebayo on the other side, the coach wanted to start big man versus big man.
The problem was Jordan had logged less than a single minute during the first-round matchup with Toronto. Some of that had to do with Rivers' preference to play Paul Reed against smaller teams. And it's easy to see that rationale—except that they posted a net rating of minus-7.7 when Jordan was on the floor during 16 regular-season games.
He played just 4:22 in the first half Monday, all in the opening quarter. The Sixers were minus-12 during those minutes. He scored two points, grabbed zero rebounds, picked up one foul, had two turnovers and did not block a shot.
To be fair, none of the starters played well to start the game as the team dug itself into a hole.
Rivers called a timeout with 7:48 left in the first quarter and subbed in Reed for Jordan. Reed played most of the first quarter until he picked up two fouls. His four points, three assists, one rebound and one steal (plus one turnover) were a positive force for the Sixers.
Yet the two early fouls meant the second-year player had to sit. But instead of turning back to Jordan, Rivers went with the seldom-used Paul Millsap, who had not appeared in a game since March 29. Maybe Rivers wanted to change the energy—or he did not want to turn back to Jordan.
Either way, it was surprising Jordan started the second half.
Rivers does have a history of being extremely loyal to former players. When he was coaching the Los Angeles Clippers, he insisted on starting Avery Bradley, a Boston Celtic under Rivers, despite numbers indicating they had better options.
Rivers coached Jordan for five years as a Clipper. The center had some of his best seasons under him and blossomed into a defensive star. He made two All-Defensive teams and three All-NBA teams. Rivers might have been for some semblance of that version of Jordan to walk through the door.
To his credit, Jordan played well in the third quarter. He worked the dunker spot and caught a lob from Harden and blocked two shots, including one on Jimmy Butler:
The big man played 10 minutes in the third quarter, scored two points, blocked two shots, grabbed two rebounds and picked up one foul. The team was a minus-three with him out there, but that was a 19-point improvement from the first quarter.
The Sixers built upon the slim lead they had at halftime but gave it up by the end of the quarter. When asked in the postgame press conference about continuing to play Jordan, Rivers said: "We like DJ. We're gonna keep starting him whether you like it or not." He also shared that he'd asked the key guys about it, and they all wanted Jordan.
But wait—did you miss the part where the Sixers built a lead before they lost it? They did. It was a small one but impressive nonetheless. And that was when the head coach flashed some brilliance.
Rivers may have stumbled upon this group by accident in the midst of trying out 32 different lineups while Jordan was struggling, Reed was in foul trouble and Millsap was nearly unplayable.
But there was one lineup that was especially productive (besides the garbage-time group). From the 4:48 mark in the second quarter to the end of the half, Philly went with an ultra-small-ball lineup of Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Georges Niang.
And it worked. The 76ers went on a 10-2 run to take a one-point lead going into halftime.
That group successfully spread the floor offensively and more than held its own on defense. In those five minutes, the Sixers had a net rating of 77.8.
The ultra-small-ball lineup effectively created more driving lanes and allowed Philadelphia to establish favorable matchups. First, the Sixers used Harden as a screener to get P.J. Tucker switched onto Maxey.
Simply put: Tucker could not stay with Maxey's speed, as seen when he got a floater in the lane:
Then as the half was winding down, the Sixers forced Tucker off Harden by attacking Max Strus off a screen with shooters spread all over the court:
It worked on the defensive end as well. The Sixers switched the ball screen between Adebayo and Butler. The 6'7" Harris has the size and strength to contend with Adebayo, while Niang is tough enough to hang with Butler as he keeps him out of the lane and contests the jumper:
The lineup worked well in the first half. But Rivers did not go back to it until the game was essentially decided. He went ultra small again with 6:50 left in the fourth quarter, already down 19. The Heat were rolling at that point, and Rivers stayed with that lineup for just two minutes, giving the Sixers a net rating of minus-10 during that stretch.
The ultra-small-ball lineup finished with a 49.2 net rating because of the first-half surge. It was the best non-garbage time lineup the Sixers had all evening that played more than two minutes together.
When Jordan gets subbed, it might be wise to go small. Sure, the Heat might be more prepared for that in Game 2. But it certainly should be used much earlier, and if it has success, Rivers cannot go away from it.
He is not in an easy position. His star player, the one who makes this whole thing go on both ends of the court, is out at least one more game, if not more. He's facing a ruthless Heat squad, and his own team lacks depth even when healthy.
Thinking and playing conventionally will get the Sixers and him beat, much like they were in Game 1.
Thinking outside the box? That might just give them a chance.
Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.