DENVER — For the 76ers, things could be worse.
Monday’s 116-111 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena extended their losing streak to three games. It was also their fourth defeat in five games.
But the Sixers (49-26) have had at least two key players sidelined in each of the four games of their road trip. James Harden, a 10-time All-Star, was sidelined the entire trip with inflammation and soreness in his left Achilles. Six-time All-Star center Joel Embiid, the MVP frontrunner, missed Monday’s game with right calf tightness.
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Sixers coach Doc Rivers is optimistic Harden will return Wednesday night against the Dallas Mavericks at the Wells Fargo Center. He’s unsure of Embiid’s status.
The contest will jumpstart the Sixers’ final seven games to conclude the season. Rivers believes getting healthy is the main thing they’ll need to improve upon down the stretch for a deep postseason run.
“I love our team, and I’m going to keep saying it,” he said. “We’re not worried.… We have to respect everybody. But we like our team.
“So we’ve just got to get healthy, and rhythm helps, too.”
Being undermanned has also had a negative impact on the Sixers’ bench during the road trip. Harden’s absence forced the Sixers to start sixth-man De’Anthony Melton in the backcourt with Tyrese Maxey.
In addition to Harden’s absence, reserve forward Jalen McDaniels (bruised right hip) missed last Wednesday’s game in Chicago. Reserve guard Danuel House Jr. (sore right shoulder) was added to the injured list for Friday night’s game against Golden State Warriors at the Chase Center. And when McDaniels was cleared to play, House and Harden remained sidelines for Saturday’s game in Phoenix.
All that led to the Sixers being outscored, 107-31, in bench points in back-to-back losses to the Warriors and Suns.
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“So it’d be great to get back to our normal rotations, where we have everybody,” Rivers said. “We have the right rotations in the second and in the beginning of the fourth quarters. We haven’t had the opportunity.”
The Sixers were in a good mood inside their locker room following Monday’s loss to the Western Conference’s top team. They said the close defeat without their two best players shows how deep they are as a team.
“I think everyone’s felt good about what we have in this locker room,” backup forward Georges Niang said. “Obviously, you want to continue playing for seeding, but you know what the back half of our schedule looks like. We don’t have any softies. We just have to continue to grow, get better and roll with the punches.”
As of Tuesday, the Eastern Conference’s third-place Sixers were five games behind the first-place Milwaukee Bucks with seven games left. They were also three games behind the second-place Boston Celtics, and just 1 ½ ahead on the fourth-place Cleveland Cavaliers.
After playing the Mavs, the Sixers will host the Toronto Raptors on Friday before facing the Bucks (54-21) in Milwaukee on Sunday. They’ll follow that up with a pair of home games against the Celtics (52-23) on April 4 and the Miami Heat on April 6. And the Sixers will conclude the season at the Atlanta Hawks on April 7 and at the Brooklyn Nets on April 9.
“When we have all our guys, I’ll put my team up against anybody,” said Niang, who isn’t bothered by the losing streak. “I mean you lose games. You want to avoid going through those spells, but it happened. We just finished three [games] in four nights, against the top teams in the West, not by record, but people would pick them.”