Short-handed amid protocols, Philadelphia 76ers fall to Denver Nuggets with only seven healthy players on Doc Rivers' roster

As the Philadelphia 76ers prepared to take on the visiting Denver Nuggets on Saturday afternoon with seven healthy players, Sixers coach Doc Rivers said he believed the NBA should have postponed the game.

"I don't think we should [play], but it's not for me to express that," Rivers said, when asked whether he believed the game should be played before short-handed Philadelphia lost 115-103 to Denver. "I do worry about our player health on the floor."

Philadelphia found itself depleted due to both injury and the NBA's health and safety protocols. So much so that forward Mike Scott -- who had been out with a knee issue -- needed to be listed as active even though Rivers said before the contest he wouldn't play him.

As a result, three rookies -- including first-round pick Tyrese Maxey, who had 39 points in his first career start -- played more than 40 minutes for Philadelphia; and Denver -- led by 21 points from Gary Harris and 15 points, 9 rebounds and 12 assists from center Nikola Jokic -- slowly pulled away as the game wore on.

"I think, even though they believe it, I think they need verification sometimes they are NBA players, some of these guys," Rivers said in praising the effort of his undermanned team after the game. "You could see it as it went on. Isaiah Joe, I think he's going to be a terrific player, and you could see him settling down, getting his legs. Paul Reed, same thing. So, for those guys, it was just great."

ESPN reported earlier Saturday the game would go on, after the NBA declared that three of the eight players who had been in the protocols in the wake of Seth Curry's positive test Thursday -- Joel Embiid, Danny Green and Reed -- were cleared from having to quarantine.

Initially, that left Philadelphia with nine players -- Embiid, Green and Reed, along with the six players (Ben Simmons, Dwight Howard, Tony Bradley, and rookies Maxey, Joe and Dakota Mathias) who were not listed on Friday's 8:30 p.m. injury report. But then the Sixers listed Embiid out with back stiffness and Simmons out with knee stiffness, forcing them to make Scott -- who had been out with his own knee issue -- active for a game that, according to Rivers, he wouldn't be playing in.

As for Embiid and Simmons, neither of whom were previously listed with an injury, Rivers explained why both of their ailments prevented them from suiting up against Denver.

"Yeah, but it has nothing to do with them just not playing," Rivers said. "Ben, in the Brooklyn game, had some knee stiffness, and so we almost probably knew after the game that he wouldn't play tonight. And then Joel started complaining about his back over the last -- at the start of yesterday. We didn't know if he was playing or not. But honestly, with the minutes we would have to ask, it would be insane to play him tonight."

Throughout his 15-minute pregame availability, Rivers repeatedly pointed out his concerns over the number of minutes his healthy players would have to play to get through the game. In the end, four players topped 35 minutes on the floor, including Maxey, who made the most of his opportunity.

"I was really just trying to do what I can to win," Maxey said. "I knew I was going to have to do more than I usually do."

It likely won't be the last time Maxey has more responsibility. While it is unclear how long the quarantine period will be for the players in the league's health and safety protocols, the Sixers have a game on Monday at the Atlanta Hawks, before playing a home-and-home with the Miami Heat on Tuesday and Thursday, with it being unlikely that any of the players still in the protocols -- Curry, Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle and Vincent Poirier -- will be able to play.

"I trust the league and I trust the doctors as far as healthwise," Rivers said, when asked if he, personally, felt safe in regard to COVID-19 with how things had progressed. "I'm more concerned with health on the floor. We're gonna play players that haven't played a lot of minutes.

"And that's not just for today, that's long-term health with the accumulation of games. The numbers we want to stay away from with our players. So I'm actually more concerned with that than I am, actually, about COVID. And I am concerned about COVID. I think everybody is. The league is, and everyone else is, as well. So yeah, it's a lot of stuff going on."

Rivers said he didn't know if there was a specific time frame for when the players in the protocols would be able to return.

"We don't know anything," he said. "I don't know enough about any of this. Especially today, I want to make the statement Doc is a nickname, because I clearly don't know the medical part of this."

Saturday afternoon's game had a chance to be the NBA season's second coronavirus-related game postponement. The Houston Rockets had their season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder postponed because of a combination of positive tests and contact tracing for Houston.

The Sixers also had one staff member test positive on Friday, a source told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne.

The Nuggets are dealing with COVID-19 issues, as well. They flew into Philadelphia on Friday without talented young forward Michael Porter Jr., who continues to be sidelined under health and safety protocols for an indefinite period, sources said. Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks left three players -- Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Jalen Brunson -- in Denver following an overtime win there on Thursday because they also are in the health and safety protocols.

After having a very successful return to play inside the NBA's bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, in the summer and early fall to finish out the 2019-20 regular season and playoffs without the virus derailing play, as of Friday night, at least 12 of the league's 30 teams (40%) had at least one player caught up in the NBA's health and safety protocols. While Curry hadn't been available to play Thursday because of a sore ankle before the 76ers found out about his positive test at the end of the first quarter, Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas played the first half Friday night before he was removed from the rest of the game for protocol-related reasons, although Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said after the game Valanciunas didn't test positive for COVID-19.

And while Rivers joked to the media to pass along a message to his counterpart in Denver, Mike Malone, that, "If he can sit out about seven or eight guys, that would be very nice of him," Malone -- whose Nuggets are off to a rocky 4-5 start to the season, despite Saturday's win -- discussed the difficult position this places each team in as it tries to navigate through the uncharted waters that are the 2020-21 NBA season.

"I think you have to understand and be sensitive to the feelings that each player on both sides may have," Malone said. "You have to remember, we just played a game against Dallas that left three players in Denver. We just played them. We have one of our own players, our third-leading scorer, back home in Denver -- Michael Porter. And the Sixers didn't leave New York City last night until late, with all the contact tracing and testing going on to see who'd be available today. I give the NBA credit.

"I talked with [NBA president of league operations] Byron Spruell a lot today, back and forth, to see if the game would be happening. Obviously, the show must go on. They deemed it safe enough to play. The Sixers have eight players, which is what you need to play a game. And to be honest, I think we're going to start seeing more of this."

"Jonas Valanciunas last night, Seth Curry a few nights ago, the players on the Dallas team, Michael Porter on our team, because we are just a microcosm of what's going on in our country," Malone continued. "So, this is unfortunately the situation we find ourselves in. On one hand, you're saying, 'Well, who are we preparing for? Are we going to play? Who's going to be available?' Then on the flip side of that is, 'Hey, we gotta go win a game. I don't care who's available for Philadelphia. We have to find a way to win a game and to start feeling better about ourselves.'"