Latest version of Sixers shows how dangerous it is in win vs. NBA-best Bucks

Latest version of Sixers shows how dangerous it is in win vs. NBA-best Bucks

The last time the Sixers played the Bucks, it wasn’t pretty.

Back on Oct. 24, Milwaukee took control early and the game was a blowout. The Sixers’ starters that night: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz.

What a difference a few months and a couple blockbuster trades can make.

The Sixers’ new-look starting five, playing in just its seventh game together, turned in its finest performance with a 130-125 win in Milwaukee Sunday afternoon (see observations), clinching a playoff spot in the process.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a monster with 52 points, but Joel Embiid was no slouch with 40 of his own along with 15 rebounds and six assists.

“I think when you ask about Joel, the thing that most stood out to me was there was a fierce level of competitiveness that he played with tonight,” Brown said to reporters postgame. “It was at an A-level. It was at a playoff level. And the physical side of things — throwing his body into things — just was extremely competitive.”

In a game against the NBA’s best and in a fight for the East’s third seed, there was a playoff feel to this one.

There’s been a lot made of the Sixers’ inability to beat the Eastern Conference’s elite. Going into Sunday, the Sixers were just 1-7 against the Bucks, Raptors and Celtics — that one win coming against a depleted Toronto team.

But that was then and this is now. This team looks nothing like the first iteration Milwaukee saw. In what could’ve been a possible playoff preview, “Sixers 3.0,” as JJ Redick called it, turned in its most impressive win of the season.

“We had only played six games. Think of that number. Truly, think about that number,” Brown said. “And to play against one of the more consistent teams in the league — as it sits, best team in the NBA [and] the best defensive team in the NBA — and try to learn and grow our team and move it forward. 

“There’s some talent in that room, no doubt about it, but there’s no right to have a fluid side and a chemistry and a symmetry. They have no right to have that — not to anybody’s fault except the calendar. So growing that and be excited about that and trying to polish it up before the playoffs begin is our goal.”

That calendar now reflects that there’s less than a month to go before the postseason. There are 12 games — including the rubber match against the Bucks — left in the regular season. That doesn’t leave much time for Brown to figure out his newest starting unit.

But luckily for Brown, the most promising thing this starting lineup has shown is the willingness to play a selfless brand of basketball. While Embiid may be the “crown jewel,” there are four other players that are supremely gifted offensively.

On Sunday, it was Redick who sparked them early by hitting 7 of 10 shots and going a spotless 4 of 4 from three for 19 points. It was Jimmy Butler who continued his aggressive ways and played closer yet again with 14 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter. It was Embiid being Embiid.

Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris weren’t spectacular, but they were efficient. Simmons was 4 of 8 for eight points, but also added nine rebounds and nine assists. Harris shot just for 4 of 7 for 12, but added seven boards and four dimes.

The beauty of having five guys as immensely talented as what the Sixers have is that you don’t need everybody to go off. 

“I think we have so many guys that score the ball in so many different ways that any given night somebody’s going to get hot,” Butler said. “You’re not going to be able to guard everybody. We do a good job of finding guys in spots where they’re comfortable — I think that’s the best part about our offense. 

“When the ball is moving around and of course when we’re playing defense, [we’re at our best]. But I think everybody is having fun and when you’re having fun, the basketball game is easy.”

If “Sixers 3.0” keeps this up, the rest of the Eastern Conference won’t be having very much fun.

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NBA trade rumors: Davis Bertans reportedly might not be available

NBA trade rumors: Davis Bertans reportedly might not be available

“The Latvian Laser” might not be for sale.

According to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, the Wizards haven’t been listening to offers for sharpshooter Davis Bertans. 

“Inquiries to Washington have gone nowhere; several executives tell SI.com that the Wizards wouldn’t even discuss a deal,” Mannix reports. “Some teams, though, are holding out hope Washington will make Bertans available before the trade deadline."

NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor and Mannix have all reported that the Sixers have interest in Bertans, who’s shot 42.6 percent from three on 8.7 attempts per game. That’s the best percentage in the league among players who have attempted at least eight threes per contest. 

Hughes reported on Jan. 6 that the Wizards were “fielding calls” for Bertans despite general manager Tommy Sheppard saying the team had “every intention of retaining” the forward in free agency. The Celtics, Lakers, Hawks and Nuggets are also suitors for Bertans, according to Hughes.

Bertans is making $7 million this season but looks set to earn substantially more when he becomes a free agent. The Wizards hold Bertans’ Bird Rights after landing him in a trade this summer, which means they could go over the salary cap to re-sign him.

The trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 6, so it’s certainly possible that the Wizards will be open for business when it really matters. It seems that it would make sense to at least consider offers. 

Regardless, Bertans is an attractive player for the Sixers, and for contending teams in general who want an elite shooter. 

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Sixers recall Zhaire Smith, plan for life without Josh Richardson

Sixers recall Zhaire Smith, plan for life without Josh Richardson

CAMDEN, N.J. — Shake Milton hasn’t spent much of his second professional season playing competitive basketball. As a result of a left knee injury he sustained on Oct. 28 and an inability to find consistent playing time when he returned, Milton has only played in 19 games this year — 13 in the NBA, six in the G League. 

Suddenly, it sounds like he’s going to assume a prominent role.

Milton played a season-high 22:31 Wednesday night after Josh Richardson strained his hamstring early in the first quarter, posting nine points on 3 of 10 shooting (3 of 6 from three-point range), four rebounds and two assists. With Richardson set to be reevaluated in approximately two weeks, Brett Brown now sees a significant job for Milton to fill.

It’s always on my mind to try to find a pick-and-roll partner for Ben [Simmons],” Brown said Friday. “Then it’s on your mind, ‘Well, what do you do with the other players?’ Namely your center. Do you play Ben at a five? And so Shake comes in, he actually can run a pick-and-roll, he can shoot, and so that interests me. 

“We’ve seen [Furkan Korkmaz] in that environment. When you take out J-Rich, you’re wondering what’s it look like if I want to pursue and continue to grow that part of Ben’s game and our understanding of how do we take the group and maximize it. Shake, I think, has a chance to come in and play a role in that. So, my intention is to continue to look at that.

Milton’s background suggests he might profile well for what Brown desires. A major focus of his rookie season, when he was under a two-way contract, was developing as a ball handler and decision-maker. He averaged 24.9 points per game in the G League last year and worked on areas like learning how and when to attack the rim, drawing fouls and, of course, running the pick-and-roll (see story)

“Just get to my spots and knock down shots,” Milton told reporters Wednesday in Toronto. “Just play with confidence and once you get up the floor a couple times you get in your groove and it’s just like playing basketball again, so it felt good.”

Al Horford highlighted defensive communication as the biggest emphasis with Milton and without Richardson. The Sixers have often asked Richardson to guard top opposing scorers this season. 

“It's hard to replace Josh, first of all, and obviously we hope that he gets healthy and gets back to us, but with Shake, just making sure that we're helping him, on the defensive end especially, getting familiar,” Horford said. 

“Offensively, I'm not worried about him. He can really, really shoot the ball and he'll have his looks, his opportunities and I'm confident in him. And defensively, just helping him, talking to him, making sure that he's in the right places and doing the things he needs to do, because that's something that Josh is great at.”

Brown was straightforward in saying that another way he'll respond to Richardson's injury is by looking to give rookie Matisse Thybulle more minutes. 

He was less clear in describing what the future might hold for Zhaire Smith. The team recalled Smith Friday from the G League, and the 20-year-old will be available Saturday night vs. the Lakers. 

Smith, acquired by the Sixers in a 2018 draft-night trade, had his rookie season derailed by a broken foot and severe complications from an allergic reaction. He’s been “hunting threes” with the Delaware Blue Coats and shooting the ball well recently (see story).

Brown said he’s been following Smith’s progress and is encouraged by what he’s seen and heard. 

“[Blue Coats head coach] Connor Johnson and I talk, we follow his statistical progress, namely how does he do at shooting threes in the corner. We get he plays hard, we get that he’s an athlete, and so now what? How can we maximize or tap into a little bit offensively what he’s been growing? 

“I think that there is an upward trend, a growth that we’ve seen for two reasons: First, him — he’s embraced the fact that he’s with the G League. Some people treat that as you’ve been scolded, and he’s handled it maturely. And two, there’s a symmetry with the programs that I think enables him to feel like there’s a progressive path in the next step when he comes up here — same words, same language, same system. And I think for those two reasons we’re looking at him a little bit more seriously, especially without J-Rich.”

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