NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: Sixers holding steady but look out for Celtics

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NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: Sixers holding steady but look out for Celtics

The Raptors continue to roll, the Celtics are starting to figure things out and the Sixers may need to make a move to keep pace.

Here’s the latest edition of our NBA Eastern Conference power rankings.

1. Raptors (21-5) Last week: 1
The Raptors just continue to roll, winning nine out of their last 10 and with Kawhi Leonard looking a legit MVP candidate. This spot appears safe for the foreseeable future.

2. Bucks (16-7) Last week: 2
The Bucks have come down to earth a little bit, but Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the early favorite for the MVP award. Unlike Toronto, Milwaukee’s standing is far from safe.

3. Sixers (17-9) Last week: 3
Speaking of MVP candidates, Joel Embiid’s “rest” game Friday night appears needed. He’s really struggled in his last three games and looked gassed vs. the Raptors. He’s playing a ton of minutes at an extremely high level so it’s not a surprise. The bigger concern is the Sixers’ bench, which lacks scoring and athleticism.

4. Celtics (14-10) Last week: 4
The Celtics are starting to get their act together, which is bad news for the Sixers and the rest of the East. The insertion of Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris to the starting lineup has given Boston a boost. Gordon Hayward also looks to be regaining his form off the bench.

5. Pistons (13-9) Last week: 7
The Pistons won five straight before losing their last two. With Detroit, it seems like they take care of business against bad teams but struggle to compete with the NBA’s elite. Outside of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, the Pistons haven’t gotten much out of the rest of the team.

6. Pacers (14-10) Last week: 5
With Victor Oladipo, the Pacers are ahead of the Pistons. With Oladipo out indefinitely, it’s hard to do to put Indiana ahead of Detroit. It’s going to be a tough stretch.

7. Hornets (11-13) Last week: 6
Despite the Herculean efforts of Kemba Walker, the Hornets have dropped five of their last seven and are barely hanging on to the East’s last playoff spot. There’s a good chance they fall out of it by our next power rankings.

8. Magic (12-13) Last week: 8
Nikola Vucevic should be an All-Star this season and he’s basically single-handedly keeping the Magic around .500.

9. Wizards (11-14) Last week: 9
The Wizards have actually won five of their last seven. Maybe they won’t blow things up as they sit just outside the eighth seed. 

10. Heat (9-14) Last week: 11
Josh Richardson has been excellent but hasn’t gotten much help. Miami has been largely disappointing.

11. Nets (8-18) Last week: 10
The Nets are free falling with eight straight losses. Spencer Dinwiddie could be a good fit for the Sixers if Brooklyn doesn’t consider an extension.

12. Knicks (8-18) Last week: 12
The Knicks have lost four of their last five after a decent stretch. They do have some dynamic, young pieces in rookies Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier.

13. Bulls (5-20) Last week: 13
The Bulls have lost seven straight but they’re rolling Lauri Markkanen back into their lineup. With Markkanen, Zach LaVine and rookie Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago does have an intriguing, young trio.

14. Cavs (5-19) Last week: 15
Rookie Collin Sexton is still looking for consistency but has shown flashes of being a legit scoring point guard.

15. Hawks (5-20) Last week: 14
Trae Young could still develop into a star, but Luka Doncic has looked sensational so far this season, making you wonder about that draft night trade.

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Brett Brown's approach with Al Horford-Joel Embiid minutes, Alec Burks' 'lightning in a bottle' role, more on Sixers

Brett Brown's approach with Al Horford-Joel Embiid minutes, Alec Burks' 'lightning in a bottle' role, more on Sixers

Updated: 5:37 p.m. 

Brett Brown said in May that he hopes to play Joel Embiid approximately 38 minutes per game in the playoffs, a figure he’s since admitted is “probably ambitious” but nevertheless doubled down on. 

The Sixers may have won if Embiid had hit that mark in their first seeding game Saturday night, based on how well he performed and how much the team struggled when he was off the floor. Embiid was plus-21 in 34 minutes and had 41 points and 21 rebounds in the Sixers’ 127-121 loss to the Pacers. A 10-point lead when Embiid exited with 8:38 remaining in the game was a two-point deficit by the time he returned with 5:04 to go.

Al Horford had 10 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes and was a minus-26. In a departure from the norm, the Sixers managed to tread water in the time Embiid and Horford were together (plus-1 in nine minutes) thanks to a combination of fruitful Embiid bully ball and Horford converting a couple of open jumpers in the third quarter. They struggled, however, with Horford at center. Brown employed his original frontcourt this year for stints at the end of the first three quarters, but not at all in the fourth. 

What factored into his decision-making? He explained Sunday that he still considers his usage of the Embiid-Horford pairing to be mostly driven by matchups. It seems he’ll be more inclined to close games with Horford against larger teams that don’t put as great a strain on the 34-year-old’s perimeter defense. Not many teams have lumbering power forwards in the modern NBA, of course, but the Pacers were especially small and quick with All-Star Domantas Sabonis sidelined by plantar fasciitis. 

I just go straight to, ‘Are we going to be able to chase?’” Brown said. “For instance, last night you’re playing against a bunch of track stars. T.J. Warren at that point (of the fourth quarter) had 40 (points) or thereabouts, and it’s, what are you going to do to chase those Holiday brothers and T.J. Warren? To give you a categoric, organic answer of ‘This is Joel and Al Horford’s world,’ I can’t. … It’s who we’re playing, what is the situation? 

“You did see a little bit of Ben (Simmons), Al and Joel, and we still gave Shake (Milton) the ball on not many but some possessions last night. Shake got in foul trouble and things started to happen a little bit differently than was planned. … You’ve gotta go with the situation and make a decision.

‘Lightning in a bottle’ 

Brown had a rather high appraisal of Alec Burks’ work in his 12 minutes against Indiana. Burks did commit four of the Sixers’ 21 turnovers, but he also provided nine points, three fewer than Milton, Josh Richardson, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle and Raul Neto combined. 

“It’s always a defensive thing,” Brown said. “He came in, I thought he played, he looked cocky. He had the ball at times. We ran him as a two off screens. I thought he looked good. And then you get into, you’ve got to stop the Holiday brothers. T.J. Warren. … So Alec, I thought his defense was pretty good. He did have a few turnovers, like a lot of us had, just kind of careless passes to an elbow or trying to go behind-the-back pocket pass out of the pick-and-roll. 

“I feel like Alec had a really good seven or eight days in camp. I thought last night he looked good, he scored, and it’s always on my mind to try to continue to grow his role as it relates to lightning in a bottle, somebody that can come in and just get buckets quickly, especially as it relates to a playoff environment.”

Teammates call Burks “Buckets,” so this is clearly not a foreign role for him. 

Of note in the ever-evolving competition for playoff minutes on the Sixers’ bench: Glenn Robinson III participated in practice but is doubtful for Monday's game vs. the Spurs with the left hip pointer injury that sidelined him Saturday. Mike Scott will miss a second straight game with right knee soreness. 

Pushing the message 

Milton chose not to focus on basketball the day after a challenging night on the court.

He wanted to talk about racial injustice instead. 

I came out here to just say that to anybody who is out here watching me, listening to me, keep fighting and keep putting the word out about what’s going on,” he said. “Don’t let up. The iron right now is hot about what’s going on in this country, the racial injustices that are happening, so keep fighting and keep putting that word out. I just want to say to Breonna Taylor’s family that we are sorry that it has taken so long, and we know (Kentucky attorney general) Daniel Cameron has the power, so we need to keep pushing to keep making his seat hot, for him to make a decision. 

“Also, I want to say rest in peace to Breonna Taylor, rest in peace to Ahmaud Arbery, rest in peace to Kalief Browder, as well. That’s all I have to say.

Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and many other NBA players have also called on Cameron to take action in the case of Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician killed on March 13 in Louisville. 

Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot to death on Feb. 23 in Savannah, Georgia. Browder died by suicide at age 22 after spending three years at Rikers Island in New York for a case that never went to trial. 

The Sixers protested Saturday by kneeling during the national anthem, and Milton said the team is working on further plans. 

“… Hopefully, along with educating people and putting that message out there, we are going to give people tangible things that they can do for action to make change in the communities where they’re at,” he said. 

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Sixers give explanations for heated exchange between Joel Embiid and Shake Milton

Sixers give explanations for heated exchange between Joel Embiid and Shake Milton

After the first quarter of the Sixers’ first game since March 11, Joel Embiid and Shake Milton had an apparent confrontation on the sidelines. Milton was restrained by teammates during a back-and-forth with the Sixers' All-Star center (see video above). 

That opening period had been a frustrating one for the Sixers, who trailed 35-29, had eight turnovers and conceded 19 points to the Pacers’ T.J. Warren. He finished with a career-high 53 Saturday night in Indiana’s 127-121 victory (see observations).

In a video conference with reporters after the game, Embiid portrayed the incident as insignificant, the kind of moment that happens often during an NBA season. 

“It’s basketball,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It happens. We’ve gotta communicate better. As players, it happens everywhere. … You discuss what’s going on and you move on, you find a solution. But it’s nothing. It happens. It happens on every team and you just figure it out and you move on, and I’m sure everybody’s going to be better moving forward.”

Embiid was excellent individually against a small Pacers team missing All-Star center Domantas Sabonis (plantar fasciitis), scoring 41 points and grabbing 21 rebounds. Milton had a difficult first game as part of the Sixers’ new starting lineup. The typically unflappable 23-year-old was bothered in the backcourt by former teammate T.J. McConnell and never seemed to have a grasp on the occasion or control over the game’s pace. He had no points, three assists, three turnovers and five fouls in 19 minutes. Brett Brown preferred Raul Neto at point guard in the closing stages.

I thought that he struggled tonight,” Brown said. “I thought that he got sped up in his mind. He got scored on initially pretty quickly. We had a discussion about pick-and-roll defense, him and Jo, about what direction the screen was coming. And I thought that he chased, for the most part, all game. 

“I think it was born out of some frustration. I think that his foul trouble didn’t help him stay in the game and find a rhythm.

Though a positive view of the encounter might be that it highlighted the Sixers’ competitiveness and desire to hold each other accountable, it did not align, at least on the surface, with what we’ve heard from players over the last few weeks about major strides made with team chemistry. Brown framed the exchange as an intense but relatively innocuous moment where Embiid wanted to address defensive mistakes. 

“You don’t go cheerleading stuff like that all the time, but if the conversation’s gotta be had, it’s gotta be had,” Brown said. “And I actually think that stuff like that is far more healthy than anything. Shake’s teammates love Shake Milton. They’re proud of his evolution. And then you’ve got an NBA All-Star in Joel Embiid that has an idea. He’s the center, back directing traffic — the pick-and-roll policeman.

"I don’t know the full details of it, but I think, for the most part, it’s healthy. And those two will move on quickly. They’re good friends, it’s just sometimes stuff like that happens in a family.”

When the Sixers had shifted Milton into the starting five at practices, Embiid was the first one to reveal it, and he heaped praise on Milton in the process, pointing to how well the second-year guard had been playing before the coronavirus paused the season. Milton had averaged 17.8 points and 4.1 assists in the Sixers’ final nine games before the NBA’s hiatus, shooting 60.4 percent from three-point range during that span. 

“He’s been amazing,” Embiid said on July 13. “He’s been the starting point guard. I think he has a huge opportunity to help us accomplish what we believe we can. He’s been doing an amazing job, just running the team, and we're going to need him to knock down shots, which he did before the league basically got shut down. He was on a roll. So we all need him to keep it going. But it’s been great.”

Embiid was asked Saturday how he could help Milton, who was not made available to reporters, move forward from his struggles Saturday night. Instead of Milton, his answer focused on the team as a whole.

“It’s the first game of the new starting lineup,” he said. “We’ve all got seven more games to try to find a balance and use it better and have it fit together. I’m sure we’re going to do that. I don’t think there’s any problems. So we’ve just gotta come together.

"Myself, I’m going to do whatever I can to make it happen — just being dominant down low and passing, trying to make sure I help my teammates by spacing out and giving guys space to do their thing. I think we’ve just got to find a balance and just find our rhythm."

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