The last time the Sixers played a game, the final score was an afterthought. In the context of the NBA season being suspended that night as the reality of facing a global pandemic set in for many fans, Joel Embiid looking good in his return from a left shoulder sprain and the Sixers beating the Pistons wasn’t very important.
With the NBA’s owners and NBPA having approved a tentative plan to restart the season at Walt Disney World on July 31, we have a chance to both look back and look ahead at key questions for if/when the season resumes. We’ll start by highlighting a few notable plays from that March 11 game vs. Detroit.
This first play is a negative one as Mike Scott falls behind in defending a ball screen, calls on Joel Embiid to switch and watches Tony Snell hit a runner over the big man.
The defense at the point of attack generally wasn’t very good from the Sixers in this game, with Pistons ball handlers penetrating too frequently. While the Sixers’ preferred mode of pick-and-roll defense is having the perimeter defender go over the screen and the big man drop, can players like Scott and Furkan Korkmaz fight over picks and manage to stay in the play enough in a postseason series?
This next sequence is a strong one for Al Horford, who had 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in this game, albeit against a bad Pistons team.
After Detroit runs a double drag action and both Embiid and Horford drop, Brandon Knight kicks the ball out to Christian Wood, and he blows by Embiid. Horford does a nice job sliding over to help and contesting Wood’s shot, though he does get away with a slight bump. It’s also encouraging to see Horford show he still can take a rebound, start the offense and make an intelligent play by finding Embiid deep in the paint against a smaller defender.
The Horford-Embiid pairing has consistently been the Sixers’ worst regular duo, but plays like this are small slivers of hope. Though it’s not worth forcing a frontcourt that doesn’t work, Horford theoretically still could have positive value next to Embiid in certain situations, especially as a passer.
Of course, adding Ben Simmons back into that mix presents a different challenge. The Simmons-Horford-Embiiid trio has excelled defensively but been the Sixers’ worst three-man lineup in terms of offensive rating by over two points.
When play resumes, there’s a strong case for shifting Horford back to the bench and keeping Shake Milton in the starting lineup. Milton’s shooting numbers were incredible after Simmons exited early with a lower back injury on Feb. 22 in Milwaukee — he made 60.4 percent of his three-pointers on 5.3 attempts per game — but that’s not the only reason he should stick as a starter.
Milton shows a capacity for probing the defense and making the simple, correct play. In fact, the entire Sixers team does that in the sequence below.
Here, the Sixers start in a “Horns” set, with Milton at the point. As Milton gives the ball to Horford on the left wing, Embiid sets what the Sixers refer to as a “sprint away screen” on the opposite side of the floor, otherwise known as a wide pin down. Richardson doesn’t use it here, perhaps because he doesn’t want to curl up and disrupt the two-man game with Milton and Horford.
Notice how Milton waits until Horford has screened off Svi Mykhailiuk before driving and hitting a long runner off the “wrong” foot.
The outside shooting is an attractive skill, but Milton’s ability to accurately diagnose plays and capitalize on attacking opportunities is another persuasive argument for him being part of the Sixers’ Disney World starting five.
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