Why Brett Brown has a 'quiet smile' when he watches the malleable Al Horford

Why Brett Brown has a 'quiet smile' when he watches the malleable Al Horford

Counting postseason basketball, Al Horford has played 911 career NBA games. Through his first five as a Sixer, he’s been just about everything the team could have wanted. 

With Joel Embiid out Saturday night in Portland, serving the first game of a two-suspension following a fight Wednesday with the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, Horford had 25 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two blocks and just one turnover. He also set the screen on Damian Lillard that freed Furkan Korkmaz for his game-winning three-pointer, wrapping up the Sixers' 129-128 comeback win over the Trail Blazers

The reality of coaching Horford, a rival during his time with the Celtics, isn’t as strange as it was for Brett Brown at the start of training camp, when he said he was “blown away" by that fact. But the Sixers’ head coach still has a deep appreciation of Horford’s value. 

Having defended him and having him defend us during the Celtic-Sixer rivalry days, which still kind of exist, I get it,” Brown told reporters in Portland. “To look out and see him in a Philadelphia uniform, I always have a quiet smile because I just have such respect for him as a person and certainly as a player, and it’s borne out of the pain that he put on us over my days coaching against him.

In both the Sixers’ win over Detroit last Saturday and against the Blazers, Horford and Tobias Harris have assumed a greater scoring load. The two combined for a total of 100 points in those games on 56.9 percent shooting from the floor.

Horford attempted 24 shots Saturday, the most he's ever taken in a game in his career. He’d only reached that number once before, on Feb. 4, 2015. On Monday in Atlanta, Horford had played about a minute and a half more and attempted 20 fewer shots, deferring to a dominant Embiid.

He’s a malleable player, to put it mildly. When asked about him, Horford’s teammates have tended to first praise his intelligence and professionalism. It’s been apparent, though, that the 33-year-old still has both the savvy to identify precisely what his team requires and the skills to fill those needs. 

His playmaking has been a quality that’s shined regardless of his role. Horford has been a centerpiece of the offense in non-Embiid minutes, keeping the ball moving from the high post, hitting cutters and helping the team play at a high pace. He has 21 assists and four turnovers. 

“Al’s smart, man,” Josh Richardson said. “Al’s a veteran’s vet. You can’t really ask for a better leader for a team. He’s always level-headed. He’s fired up when he needs to be. but usually he just keeps it to a tone that everybody can relate to. He does the little things, he’s vocal, he makes good plays. He’s been great.”

Horford was notably the Sixer who took the strongest public stance against Embiid’s tussle with Towns. He epitomized the mature “veteran’s veteran” Richardson described in sternly saying, “there’s just no place for that in our game.” 

Of course, he also was sure to note that Embiid and Towns are both “good kids.”  

The Sixers’ offensive identity appears to be centered around pounding home size in the post — they’ve already posted up 23 more times than any team in the league, per NBA.com/Stats. Defensively, they’ve played a style that’s toed the line between aggressive and reckless, forcing 19.0 turnovers per game, third in the NBA. On a team with such a grinding, relentless, attacking identity, there’s something to be said for having a steady presence, one who doesn’t mind going against popular opinion. 

It’s a long season, as Horford will surely tell his teammates when that reminder is needed. Five games in, he looks like a valuable player to have on the ride.

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Why Shake Milton could thrive in strange NBA playoffs this year

Why Shake Milton could thrive in strange NBA playoffs this year

On March 1, Shake Milton introduced himself to the NBA world by dropping 39 points on the Clippers in L.A on national TV.

Not bad for a guy that was told he was out of the rotation before an injury to Ben Simmons thrust him into the starting lineup.

But that seems to be the story of Milton. He’s unflappable. Whatever his life or career presents him, he keeps moving forward.

As the Sixers continue their training camp at Disney World to prepare for the resumed NBA season, Brett Brown has been using Milton as his starting point guard, moving Simmons to the four. That means the 23-year-old that’s played 52 career NBA games appears to have the inside track on a starting job for a team looking to go on a deep playoff run.

No pressure or anything there.

There are people that just thrive in these circumstances. You can throw them in intense situations, and they act so calm you have to wonder if they even have a pulse. Milton’s imperturbable demeanor has likely helped him get to where he is. 

He was a freshman in high school when he lost his father. Myron Milton was just 43 when he passed away suddenly. The two were close and basketball was a big part of their bond. His dad told him to “just go out there and play like you’re the best player on the floor,” Shake said to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters.

The Oklahoma native was recruited to play at SMU by former Sixers coach and Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who said he “got lucky” in landing Milton over the likes of the University of Oklahoma and Indiana. Milton had a strong college career but that’s also where injuries became an unfortunate part of his story.

Milton suffered a hand injury that limited him to 22 games his junior year and final season for the Mustangs. A back injury presumably caused him to slip to the back end of the draft. After making strides at the NBA level his rookie season, he suffered another hand injury. Just three games into the 2019-20 season — and when it appeared he had a legitimate chance at a spot in the rotation — a knee injury sidelined him.

Ironically, injuries are what led to his next prolonged NBA opportunity. When Simmons went down, Milton stepped in and produced in a big way, averaging 17.8 points and shooting 60.4 percent from three over his last nine games before play was suspended.

All the injuries and time spent with the Delaware Blue Coats has led to this moment, where he could potentially be the team's starting point guard in the postseason.

“You won’t find a better kid than him, and somebody that really trusts the process,” Larry Brown said as a guest on the Sixers Talk podcast in May. “And Philly did a remarkable job with him. Playing in the G League in Delaware, Shake told me was huge. …

“The greatest thing is they had patience with him. They had some injuries and you never know when the opportunity is going to be there for you to show you can play.”

Milton has rewarded that patience already. Now, he’ll have to try to carry the momentum he built before the season was suspended onto one of the biggest NBA stages.

But it’s all part of Milton’s story and why if anyone can do this at a young age and with so little NBA experience, it could be him.

“There’s a poise that he has as a person that I’m assuming everybody on this call that has interviewed him feels,” Brett Brown said in a video conference call with reporters Tuesday. “And I think that can help him navigate through a pressure situation of the NBA playoffs. I do believe how he’s wired from a human perspective can help him deal with that environment I think in a more calm way.”

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Ben Simmons responds to potentially playing a different role for Sixers

Ben Simmons responds to potentially playing a different role for Sixers

Ben Simmons is exceptionally versatile, and he does not have a difficult time describing the multitude of things he can do well on a basketball court besides shoot. 

“I’m a basketball player at the end of the day,” he said in a video conference call Tuesday. “You know me, you put me on the floor, I’ll make anything happen, whether it’s plays, buckets, stops. I’ll guard anybody 1 through 5, I’ll run the floor, I can get to the rim, I can score the ball and I make plays happen. 

“So wherever you put me — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — it’s going to happen. I don’t really look at it as a title or position. That’s mainly for you guys to put down in your articles.” 

Reporters’ articles on Monday were obligated to mention that Brett Brown said he has been using Simmons exclusively as a power forward in the Sixers’ practices at Disney World, and that he’s been employing Shake Milton as the team’s starting point. Simmons did not seem worried about whether that shift meant he’d now have the ball in his hands less often. 

“It’s basketball, you’ve gotta get the ball,” he said.

Fair enough. 

In the eight games Milton and Simmons started together between Jan. 25 and Feb. 9, the two-time All-Star was often stationed as a playmaker at the elbow and still had many chances to be the hub of the offense, like on the play below vs. the Lakers. Milton dished the ball off to Simmons and then set a cross screen to free Tobias Harris, who Simmons hit for an open three. 

Simmons averaged 20.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists during that stretch, and the Sixers went 4-4. He may not be as commanding an all-around presence as his star teammate, but Milton is a multi-dimensional offensive player, one Simmons feels complements him effectively. 

“He plays really well,” Simmons said of Milton. “He can shoot the ball, he has a high IQ, he can get to the rim, he can finish. He’s just somebody you can play with, and you can say something to him and he’ll put it into play and try it out. And that’s what you need in somebody like Shake or players like that. He’s developing still and he’s come a long way since the first day I’ve seen him play. He’s only getting better.”

If the Sixers ultimately decide to start the never-used lineup of Milton, Josh Richardson, Harris, Simmons and Joel Embiid — Brown emphasized again Tuesday that it’s still “incredibly early” in this second training camp of sorts — one imagines we’ll see less of Simmons as a middle pick-and-roll ball handler and more of him as a screener. Ideally, that would mean fewer possessions where the defense sags off and Simmons’ weakness as a shooter hurts the team.

It also should mean greater opportunity for Simmons to grow pick-and-roll partnerships with Milton and Richardson.

Given how the Sixers had fallen short of their expectations before the NBA’s hiatus, Simmons is open to experimentation. He just doesn't care about the labels.

You've just gotta work with different things,” he said. “You’ve gotta try different things out, see if they work. We’re not at a stage where we can be comfortable yet. I’m still trying to figure it out myself ... what feels comfortable, what’s right for this team and how we’re gonna win. 

“If it’s this way, then I’m all for it. I’ve been having fun in that position — whatever you guys say, the four — whatever it is. But at the end of the day, when you see me I’m on the floor, I’m making plays.

As for who will handle the ball late in close playoff games, Brown has not yet settled on an answer. 

“He does have the ball at times,” Brown said of Simmons. “I have played him as a four-man. And so I suspect that will continue where I use him in many ways, and I think that when it gets a little bit closer than four days into practice, I’ll probably be able to give you more detail. 

“But I think about it all the time and we still have a lot of things as it relates to just to the preseason games, the eight regular-season games — the runway is long. We have enough time to establish a lot of these things that might remain a little uncertain or flexible.”

With Simmons’ unique skill set, the ultimate correct answer might not be a simple or conventional one. 

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