When Ben Simmons missed his first game of this season on Nov. 8 because of an AC joint sprain in his right shoulder, Raul Neto started and Trey Burke played 17:34 as the Sixers’ backup point guard.
Burke was waived in February and is now a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Brett Brown, however, often uses Burke’s surname when he’s talking about Alec Burks, whose addition prompted the release of Burke.
The prior sentence was likely confusing, but let's be clear: Brown knows the player who scored 22 points Friday night and closed out the Sixers’ 108-101 win over the Magic (see observations). He’s colorfully discussed Burks’ “streetball-type game” and “lightning in a bottle” potential, and he had more praise to dish out Friday.
You just felt confident that something as simple as a spaced pick-and-roll — put Al (Horford) or (Joel Embiid) in, roll Joel, let Alec dance … it was a clean, simple environment that I thought he really was excellent in. He can get into the paint at times and just play bully ball. And he has the ability to create his own shot — he sometimes doesn’t even need a pick-and-roll. And so all of those things were part of the reason that I extended his minutes, and maybe none more importantly, I think, than his defense.
“I think he’s really taken pride in knowing the scouting report. I think he’s sitting in a stance and taking pride in not getting beat on the first or second dribble with live-dribble guys. And so the package just enabled me to play him more than I normally have been, and I think he was a major contributor to the win. He was our bell ringer tonight, and we need him doing those types of things going forward.
With Simmons sidelined by a left patella subluxation, Burks’ abilities to run a pick-and-roll and conjure offense from nothing become more valuable. In truth, though, his strengths are skills the Sixers lacked back in October. It’s why Burke — the 6-foot Allen Iverson admirer, not the 6-foot-6 University of Colorado product — held appeal as a backup point guard possibility. Many of the themes we’ve heard from Brown about instant offense and shot creation echo.
“I think my skill set adjusts well — playing great in the pick-and-roll and I can read the defense, find open people,” Burks said. “I’m just trying to thrive in that and help the team any way I can.”
The Sixers need these traits because zero members of their original starting lineup have them. Josh Richardson, the player who comes closest to resembling that mould, shot 2 for 12 vs. the Magic and has struggled to find his spots in an offense where he’s far from the first option. The fact that Shake Milton can handle the ball, conduct a pick-and-roll and hit open shots boosted his case to start, as basic as it sounds.
Though Burks and Milton’s minutes were staggered with the exception of an early-fourth quarter stretch, there were encouraging signs from both players individually. Milton had six points, a career-high eight assists and only one turnover in 25 minutes. Since turning it over three times in the Sixers’ seeding game opener, he has two turnovers in 78 minutes.
“With Shake, he’s going to continue to figure it out,” Horford said. “Obviously we all haven’t played together, and that makes a difference. He continues to feel it out, he continues to understand how he needs to play. And he was good tonight. He was solid, making the right plays … not turning the ball over.
“And then Alec, he just has the ability to score in bunches, and we need that. We just need to continue to keep him involved and put him in positions where he can help us.”
Horford started Friday alongside Milton, as he’d done on March 11 in the Sixers’ final game before the NBA’s hiatus. He played well, posting 21 points and nine rebounds, and adding a physicality that Brown appreciated.
Despite the aforementioned positives, the Sixers trailed the 32-38 Magic by two points after three quarters. Competent ball handling and shotmaking in Simmons’ absence is necessary, but it's fair to be skeptical about whether that would be enough in the playoffs against a team like the Celtics or Bucks. After all, none of the Sixers’ three wins at Disney World have been comfortable or against top-tier opposition.
“It’s hard to replace Ben,” Horford said. “He does a lot for our group. The way that we’re looking at it is we all just have to step up a little more. It’s going to give opportunities to guys from the bench and other guys to come in to have an impact. We really don’t know. We don’t know, we just hope that he’s able to get healthy and get healthy quickly.”
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