76ers

Joel Embiid's struggles continue in Sixers' loss to Raptors

Joel Embiid's struggles continue in Sixers' loss to Raptors

Even MVP candidates have rough nights.

Unfortunately, it was one of those evenings for Joel Embiid in Toronto. The Sixers’ four-game winning streak was snapped in a turnover-ridden 113-102 loss to the Raptors Wednesday (see story). The All-Star center was just 5 of 17 from the floor and matched a season-low with 10 points. 

To pour more salt in the wound, Raptors starting center Serge Ibaka (18 points on 7 of 13) and backup five Jonas Valancunias (26 points on 9 of 13) both got the better of Embiid.

On many nights, Embiid is the best player on the floor. Just about every night, he’s the best big on the floor. That wasn’t the case Wednesday

After the game, Embiid was his usual blunt self in assessing his play to reporters after the game.

We turned the ball over a lot and we gave up a lot of offensive rebounds and I sucked …

I wasn’t making anything. In fact, the last few games I’ve been so trash so I’ve got to figure that part out if I want to help the team win some games.

It may be a bit of an overreaction from Embiid, who sounded dejected postgame. 

Embiid leads the league, taking 10.4 free throws a game. Wednesday, he took one trip to the line and missed both shots. Clearly, he was frustrated, picking up a technical in the fourth.

Coming into tonight, Embiid was averaging 27 points, 13.4 rebounds and two blocks a game. He’ll be in historic company if he finishes around those numbers. 

He’s put the league on notice. With that, comes extra attention on the floor.

“They did a good job of going at him — double-teaming him,” Brett Brown said. “They did a good job of pushing him off the block probably two or three more feet farther than we’d hope. They did a good job of pressuring him in general. 

“That’s part of it: He’s that good. He is having a year that warrants high-level accolade discussion, but tonight was just a down night for him and I got to help him.”

To an extent, Wednesday was just one of 82 games.

Then again, Embiid has really struggled over his last three games from the field. He’s shot just 33 percent (14 of 42) over that span. 

His numbers are slightly down since the arrival of Jimmy Butler. Embiid contributes some of his recent struggles to adjusting to Butler, but Embiid takes responsibility for his current shooting woes.

“It’s hard,” Embiid said. “I’m trying to figure it out. My place on the floor. Sometimes I’ve got to space the floor. A lot of times with the way our plays are set up I tend to spend a lot of time on the perimeter. That’s just an adjustment we got to make with the coaches. Figure out how to keep me down low. I don’t know … changing the plays or whatever. 

“I got to do a better job. It’s on me. I haven’t been efficient and got to make sure I work on my game.”

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Whether he knows it or not, Shake Milton is now the Sixers' starting point guard

Whether he knows it or not, Shake Milton is now the Sixers' starting point guard

If you listen to Brett Brown, Shake Milton is the Sixers’ starting point guard.

If you listen to Shake Milton, the situation isn’t so definitive.

“No, not really,” Milton said Thursday night after the Sixers’ 115-106 win over the Knicks when asked if Brown had told him he could expect to start moving forward. “When somebody goes down, especially somebody who is kind of in your position, you kind of might have an idea that your number might be called, so it's just about staying ready and being prepared to play.”

Minutes earlier, Brown had raved about Milton, the second-year guard who’s gone from second-round pick to G-League standout to fringe rotation player to, well, starting point guard with Ben Simmons sidelined by nerve impingement in his lower back. He scored 19 points (6 of 7 shooting) and had four assists and two blocks vs. the Knicks. With 9 made threes in his last 11 attempts, he’s surged to a team-best 43 percent from long range. 

What a fantastic story late,” Brown said. “It’s getting to the stage where the sort of unique performances that catch your eye have become more and more frequent. … He’s just becoming consistently reliable on a bunch of things. The statistics we’re all going to see, but defensively, watch him sit in a stance and watch him follow a game plan. He’s deceptively long and I think he’s improved tremendously defensively. … 

“At this stage you’d have to say, if everybody’s looking for a tournament, he’s winning it. He’s the starting point guard. The rest of it falls into place with some other ball handlers that are more than capable and at times really good, but Shake has been a needed surprise late.

While Milton is performing above Brown's expectations, his recent success shouldn’t be shocking. At SMU, he was an excellent three-point shooter (42.7 percent from three) and a competent facilitator. In the G League, he gained experience at both guard positions and the confidence that comes with being a star in that setting. He “keeps it cool,” emphasizes being ready for anything with a steady tone in his increasingly frequent sessions with reporters, and steps in when asked. 

His jumper is a smooth and simple tool that he seems to shoot on his own terms, rarely rushed, with all the pieces aligned. An old acronym comes to mind when you watch it — Balance, eyes, elbow, follow through. 

Milton’s defense has improved recently, too, as he sharpens his feel for how and when to best use his 7-foot wingspan and takes smarter paths working around and through screens.

“I’m still learning a lot,” he said. “Every game I feel like I'm able to take away something new and learn from it, and kind of put that on my board to get better at. Tomorrow we'll go back and watch film and see the mistakes that I made and how I'm able to change those, and put out an even better effort next time.”

Tobias Harris, who led the Sixers with 34 points, said Milton’s disposition is what impressed him the most. 

“Just his fearlessness on the floor,” he said. “Shake is a really good player, but he has the confidence in himself, in his game to go out night after night and just to play. … He puts in a lot of work, works really hard. So, I'm happy for him and every time he gets an opportunity, he takes advantage of it. Tonight, he was huge for us.”

In a Sixers’ season that has, through 60 games, failed to meet expectations, a young player excelling in an expanded role is an obvious, rare feel-good story. 

To what extent Milton can sustain this level of play remains to be seen. He’ll probably be featured on more scouting reports, and it’s very possible his shooting will slump. We can say with confidence that, though he’s a far superior outside shooter, he won’t be anywhere near Simmons’ overall level any time soon. 

Milton is indeed the Sixers’ starting point guard for now, though, whether he knows it or not. 

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Sixers Talk podcast: Joel Embiid is out, but at least we have Shake Milton

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NBCSP/USa Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: Joel Embiid is out, but at least we have Shake Milton

On this edition of Sixers Talk, Paul Hudrick and Tyrone Johnson discuss the latest on Joel Embiid's injury, Tobias Harris and Shake Milton picking up the slack without Embiid and Ben Simmons, and much more.

• Reacting to the latest on Joel Embiid's shoulder injury (1:03)

• Tobias Harris and Al Horford playing better (3:24)

• Shake Milton giving the Sixers a much-needed boost (10:37)

• Glenn Robinson III claiming to not understand his role (16:14)

• Locker room issues? (23:33)

• The brutal upcoming road trip (29:01)

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