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How Sixers embody ‘stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready’ mantra even while decimated by injuries

Philadelphia Inquirer 12/1/2022 Gina Mizell, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sixers guard Matisse Thybulle goes after the basketball against Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis on Nov. 18. © Yong Kim / Staff Photographer/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Sixers guard Matisse Thybulle goes after the basketball against Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis on Nov. 18.

CLEVELAND — Matisse Thybulle stepped to the left baseline inside Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, took one dribble to his right, and fired the shot. After repeating that sequence three times, the 76ers wing moved to the elbow, then to the free throw line, then to the opposite side, as player development associate coach T.J. DiLeo zipped him pass after pass.

Thybulle executes the same pregame routine whether he is starting or completely out of the rotation. And that has been a necessity for him and several Sixers teammates, whose roles have fluctuated throughout the first 22 games because of a rash of injuries that have caused every starter except P.J. Tucker to miss multiple games.

In such situations, players often utter the mantra, “Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.” Actually doing the physical and mental work to reach that level of preparedness, however, takes far more than words. Yet aside from Wednesday’s dud in Cleveland, the Sixers’ deep reserves have put that phrase into practice while winning seven of their last 10 games.

Sixers guard Furkan Korkmaz drives to the basket between the Hawks' AJ Griffin and Dejounte Murray. © Yong Kim / Staff Photographer/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Sixers guard Furkan Korkmaz drives to the basket between the Hawks' AJ Griffin and Dejounte Murray.

“That’s really important, because it’s hard,” coach Doc Rivers said earlier this week. “You’re sitting there, and you see these three guys in front of you and you’re like, ‘How am I going to break through with these guys in front of me?’ And yet they stayed ready, and I think that says a lot about them and it says a lot about our other coaches.”

Sixers guard Shake Milton drives to the basket against Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray on Monday. © Yong Kim / Staff Photographer/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Sixers guard Shake Milton drives to the basket against Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray on Monday. Sixers star James Harden targeting Monday’s game against Houston Rockets as return date

The Sixers’ primary offseason moves — signing P.J. Tucker, Danuel House Jr., and Montrezl Harrell and trading for De’Anthony Melton — meant that players who were used to rotation spots were organically pushed down the bench. Thybulle, Shake Milton, and Furkan Korkmaz, for instance, played a combined 14 minutes in the Sixers’ first five games.

Yet step into the arena bowl more than two hours before any tipoff, Thybulle notes, and staffers are set up with laptops for individual film sessions to study their mistakes and opponents’ tendencies. Stay long after the final buzzer, and one will spot those players lifting in the weight room or hallway.

Rivers credits that player development staff with building plans for each player — and getting them on the floor together for “low-minute” scrimmages that serve a purpose beyond maintaining cardio. Korkmaz appreciates that he can play with pace and intensity during those sessions, even in shorter bursts. An MVP is awarded at the end of each game, Rivers said, creating an environment with stakes.

And because “we all have egos,” Korkmaz said, trash talk is prevalent.

“We are really going at each other,” he said. “... We are just talking [expletive] out there.”

Added Milton: “When you’re not playing, guys live for those games. At least I do. Just the [opportunity] to get out there and hoop and feel free a little bit and get your mindset right, when you’re not playing, guys treat those like real games. And you have to in order to stay ready. That’s as close to a game rep as you’re going to get.”

Being disciplined in a player’s own personal routine is also necessary. When the Sixers are at home, for instance, Harrell said he does after-hours workouts with his personal trainer to simulate gamelike scenarios. He also makes sure to adjust eating habits accordingly because, if game reps dip, he might begin to gain weight.

Yet staying ready amid inconsistent — or nonexistent — playing time is perhaps an even greater mental challenge.

Harrell acknowledges he used to “psyche [himself] out” by concocting hypotheticals as a younger player, before observing how former veteran teammates such as Trevor Ariza and Lou Williams carried themselves professionally. To stay levelheaded, Milton might turn off his cellphone or listen to a certain type of music. Once Korkmaz leaves the facility each day, he said, “I don’t want to think about basketball.”

“I just go home, forget about everything, and then reset myself,” Korkmaz said.

Added Harrell: “I can’t control the narrative or the nature of if I’m going to play or if I’m going to get this amount of minutes.”

Rivers recently praised his players’ maturity in being competitive yet not destructive. Milton added that teammates regularly remind each other of the season’s length, and that opportunity is likely to arrive at some point. During a film session a few weeks ago, the coach rolled a play when Milton exuberantly encouraged Thybulle to shoot a three-pointer while on the bench.

“If you’re a young team and you had 11 guys that were pretty close to equal, it would be awful,” Rivers said. “I’m just being honest, it would be really tough. You see some of these young teams, you can see they’re all fighting — on the floor — to be the star.

“I think, here, you kind of know who the stars are, but they’re veterans and they know it’s a long season and they’re going to all get a chance. And then, by the end of the rotation, you’ll figure out your rotation.”

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Being shorthanded can lead to nights like Wednesday, when a normally stout Sixers defense allowed the Cavaliers to shoot 73% in the first half of an eventual 113-85 defeat. They ended the first quarter with a lineup of Milton, Thybulle, House, Georges Niang, and Paul Reed — three players who were not in the opening-night rotation — and began the fourth with Harrell and Reed sharing the frontcourt.

Still, there have been far more impressive outings than disappointing ones during this stint.

Entering Wednesday, Milton had averaged 22 points on 56.3% shooting, 6.6 assists, and 5.9 rebounds in his last seven games. Reed totaled 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting and 10 rebounds in last week’s highly anticipated game against the Brooklyn Nets. House scored a season-high 19 points in Sunday’s blowout win at Orlando, while Korkmaz added 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting in that same game.

Performances like those could make Rivers’ rotation decisions more difficult once the Sixers return to full health. That does not bother the coach, who relishes matchup flexibility and opportunities to preserve minutes over the course of 82 regular-season games.

And because it’s now reasonable to expect that any player who does not crack the rotation will stay ready.

“That keeps us motivated,” Korkmaz said. “Because at the end of the day, whatever we do, we are trying to help the team win games. But at the same time, we are trying to show our best performance on the court.”

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