Robert Covington (lower back contusion) vs. Pelicans

Robert Covington (lower back contusion) vs. Pelicans

UPDATED: 7 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS — Robert Covington will miss the Sixers' game Sunday night against the Pelicans in New Orleans because of a lower back contusion he suffered during a fall Saturday late against the Cavaliers.

X-rays and a CT scan came back negative. Covington is with the team in New Orleans and is doubtful for Tuesday's game in Minnesota.

Covington tumbled out of bounds and over courtside seats while he tried to save a possession during a Sixers comeback attempt. There is an approximate four-to-five inch drop between the court and the area where Covington landed. Many of his teammates were unaware of Covington's injury at first because it was out of their vision.

“It’s scary to see your teammate like that,” guard JJ Redick said. “They said he fell on his back. I wanted to make sure he’s walking and not in too much pain. But I just wish the best for him and hope he’s OK.”

The Sixers will have to replace Covington in the starting lineup.

Joel Embiid, who was expected to play after sitting out Saturday because of his back-to-back restriction, was scratched right before the game because of back tightness.

Brett Brown thinks Sixers' fourth-quarter defense 'stinks,' so what are the answers?

Brett Brown thinks Sixers' fourth-quarter defense 'stinks,' so what are the answers?

The Sixers’ late-game defense in their first two seeding games has been subpar. They allowed 46 fourth-quarter points Saturday against the Pacers and escaped with a 132-130 win over the Spurs on Monday night despite conceding 43 points in the fourth. 

Brett Brown is, to put it mildly, not pleased. 

I think it stinks,” he said Monday in a video conference call. “I think it’s not anything that we are or believe in or talk about. We were very lucky to win tonight. … The good news is it is well within our reach immediately to flip the switch. We need to have an immediate paradigm shift and an admittance that we can’t afford to pick and choose. And in the last two games we have done that.

“I give credit to Indiana, and certainly the Spurs tonight — those guys scored. Their three scorers scored. But in general, it ain’t going to get it done. It’s not who we are and it needs to be fixed, and fixed it will be. And it needs to start with the mentality, and I know our players understand that. It’s not like that speech I just gave is a mystery. They’re smart enough to know it to be true.

With a 178.0 defensive rating in fourth quarters at Disney World, the Sixers are worst in that statistic by over 38 points. It would be stunning if their fourth-quarter defense remains anywhere near this poor. 

The team’s first two games in a “bubble” during a pandemic with assigned bench seating and virtual fans have been somewhat odd, as one might expect. Instead of labored, inefficient offense and solid defense, we’ve seen a team that’s scoring just fine but far from sturdy on the other side of the ball. One Sixer who hasn’t often resembled his pre-hiatus self is Ben Simmons, a strong First Team All-Defense candidate. 

Per NBA.com/Stats, opponents have shot 17 of 24 when defended by Simmons (70.8 percent) in Florida. He’d held opponents to 41.3 percent shooting before the NBA’s suspension, the lowest mark of any Sixers regular, and thrived against high-level scorers. T.J. Warren and DeMar DeRozan have had success against him.

Some of the answers to this problem for the Sixers should be simple. Simmons, who fouled out in 25 minutes Monday, has to show these were merely two games below his normal high standards. Collectively, the Sixers need to be stingier against dribble penetration and close out on shooters with greater urgency and effort.

A schematic tweak or two might be advisable down the line. It appeared early in the year that the Sixers would be significantly more willing to blitz the pick-and-roll and generally play aggressive defense under new de facto defensive coordinator Ime Udoka. The team’s default pick-and-roll coverage with Joel Embiid on the court remains having the guard try to work over the screen and Embiid dropping. (Al Horford often plays "up to touch," or a little higher up.) That’s the norm across the NBA, but perhaps the Sixers could be a bit more flexible in choosing when they deviate from it. 

“We’ve gotta do a better job defensively to be the best defensive team in the league,” Embiid said, “so we’ve just gotta take the challenge. … The last two games, we haven’t been able to keep our man in front of us. We’ve just gotta do a better job, and in those situations I’ve just gotta do a better job of protecting the paint and making sure I correct some mistakes.”

Ultimately, it’s improbable that the Sixers will make a deep playoff run unless the team’s defense in its opening seeding games ends up looking like an aberration. 

“One thing that we have to get to is understanding that we know we can score,” Tobias Harris said, “but at the end of the day we can make these games a whole lot easier if we lock in defensively and get stops and let that fuel our offense — it makes us more efficient.”

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THAT is the version of Shake Milton the Sixers are expecting

THAT is the version of Shake Milton the Sixers are expecting

Shake Milton had a forgettable night last Saturday. In his first game as the Sixers’ point guard in the new-look starting lineup, Milton struggled on the court and had a heated exchange with Joel Embiid that was caught on camera.

What a difference a day or two can make.

On Monday, Milton looked like a totally different player, hitting a game-winning three with 6.1 seconds left to give the Sixers a wild 132-130 win over the Spurs (see observations).

The second-year guard’s poise has been one his greatest assets early in his NBA career. That’s why that moment in a loss to the Pacers seemed so out of character.

The version of Milton we saw Monday, the guy who was bloodied by an elbow to the mouth a few minutes prior and still hit a clutch shot, seemed more like the player people in Philadelphia have come to know.

“Yeah, and we needed it,” Brett Brown said in a video conference postgame. “Any time a player cannot make stuff up and they react to what the sport says, and he wasn’t guarded, they threw him the ball, and he didn’t think, he just shot it. 

“And Shake, for all of you, I know you’ve interviewed him and you listen to him, it’s quite clear he is an articulate, intelligent young man. And the poise and kind of grace he goes about his business with I think was reflected in that moment. He just was very calm, took a lot of belief in himself and ended up with maybe one of the biggest shots of his career.”

And the first player to find Milton for a high-five at half court after he hit the shot? Joel Embiid, of course.

You can’t make this stuff up.

“I was really happy,” Embiid said. “It’s good to be in that situation and hit the game-winner. I’m extremely happy for him. He’s been working really hard this season and it’s showing off. And that was a big shot he hit — it gave us the win.”

Embiid had another strong outing, posting 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists. 

It’s become a regular occurrence for Embiid to face double teams all game long. It was no different against San Antonio. Just like the Pacers, the Spurs were forced to put out a very small lineup because of injuries. Against both teams, Embiid was decisive and strong with the basketball when the doubles came. In the waning moments of the game, who else would the Sixers go to?

With 10.4 seconds left and Milton inbounding, his man, Dejounte Murray, fronted Embiid in the post while big man Jakob Poeltl stood between Embiid and the rim. Instead of throwing something toward the rim and risking a turnover, Milton got the ball to Al Horford at the top of they key. While Horford looked for a way to try to get the ball to Embiid, Murray took another step closer to the paint.

Then Horford’s eyes went back to Milton, who was left uncovered after inbounding. Milton, who finished with 16 points, took one dribble and calmly hit a dagger.

“It probably was no secret who we wanted to go to,” Brown said. “And just because of that crowd and the fact that you had somebody that could pass the ball in and make a shot proved to win us the game as a result of Shake’s sort of confidence. Because normally a lot of people aren’t going to fall in love with that shot and he didn’t hesitate, and to your point, given his performance in the first game it’s a great way for him to help us get that win.”

The reaction couldn’t have been anymore Milton, either. He strutted back to the Sixers’ bench nodding while his teammates took turns mobbing him.

Even his reaction on social media seemed to perfectly encapsulate the man and the moment.

“Just seeing how much his confidence grows,” Josh Richardson said. “From the beginning of the season to now, he’s a different player. Before the pandemic and everything happened, his confidence was growing at the end of the season.

"Hopefully, we can keep nurturing that, because he’s a young player and there are going to be ups and downs. But if I can stay in his ear, if guys can stay in his ear just to stay positive and keep pushing, I think he’ll be all right.”

Though the 23-year-old had a rough first outing, having Monday’s version of Milton be the starting point guard seems like it might just be crazy enough to work.

Luckily for the Sixers, that version seems much more like the real Milton.

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