76ers

Why Shake Milton could thrive in strange NBA playoffs this year

Why Shake Milton could thrive in strange NBA playoffs this year

On March 1, Shake Milton introduced himself to the NBA world by dropping 39 points on the Clippers in L.A on national TV.

Not bad for a guy that was told he was out of the rotation before an injury to Ben Simmons thrust him into the starting lineup.

But that seems to be the story of Milton. He’s unflappable. Whatever his life or career presents him, he keeps moving forward.

As the Sixers continue their training camp at Disney World to prepare for the resumed NBA season, Brett Brown has been using Milton as his starting point guard, moving Simmons to the four. That means the 23-year-old that’s played 52 career NBA games appears to have the inside track on a starting job for a team looking to go on a deep playoff run.

No pressure or anything there.

There are people that just thrive in these circumstances. You can throw them in intense situations, and they act so calm you have to wonder if they even have a pulse. Milton’s imperturbable demeanor has likely helped him get to where he is. 

He was a freshman in high school when he lost his father. Myron Milton was just 43 when he passed away suddenly. The two were close and basketball was a big part of their bond. His dad told him to “just go out there and play like you’re the best player on the floor,” Shake said to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters.

The Oklahoma native was recruited to play at SMU by former Sixers coach and Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who said he “got lucky” in landing Milton over the likes of the University of Oklahoma and Indiana. Milton had a strong college career but that’s also where injuries became an unfortunate part of his story.

Milton suffered a hand injury that limited him to 22 games his junior year and final season for the Mustangs. A back injury presumably caused him to slip to the back end of the draft. After making strides at the NBA level his rookie season, he suffered another hand injury. Just three games into the 2019-20 season — and when it appeared he had a legitimate chance at a spot in the rotation — a knee injury sidelined him.

Ironically, injuries are what led to his next prolonged NBA opportunity. When Simmons went down, Milton stepped in and produced in a big way, averaging 17.8 points and shooting 60.4 percent from three over his last nine games before play was suspended.

All the injuries and time spent with the Delaware Blue Coats has led to this moment, where he could potentially be the team's starting point guard in the postseason.

“You won’t find a better kid than him, and somebody that really trusts the process,” Larry Brown said as a guest on the Sixers Talk podcast in May. “And Philly did a remarkable job with him. Playing in the G League in Delaware, Shake told me was huge. …

“The greatest thing is they had patience with him. They had some injuries and you never know when the opportunity is going to be there for you to show you can play.”

Milton has rewarded that patience already. Now, he’ll have to try to carry the momentum he built before the season was suspended onto one of the biggest NBA stages.

But it’s all part of Milton’s story and why if anyone can do this at a young age and with so little NBA experience, it could be him.

“There’s a poise that he has as a person that I’m assuming everybody on this call that has interviewed him feels,” Brett Brown said in a video conference call with reporters Tuesday. “And I think that can help him navigate through a pressure situation of the NBA playoffs. I do believe how he’s wired from a human perspective can help him deal with that environment I think in a more calm way.”

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Joel Embiid’s status, a lingering rotation question, more on Sixers’ final tune-up before playoffs

Joel Embiid’s status, a lingering rotation question, more on Sixers’ final tune-up before playoffs

The Sixers are a couple of days away from their games meaning something again.

They played well in their final seeding game Friday night, blowing out the Rockets, 134-96, and will begin their first-round series vs. the Celtics on Monday at 6:30 p.m. (see series schedule). 

Here are observations on Friday’s game: 

Embiid’s status 

Brett Brown was asked pregame whether there was any reason for concern with Embiid’s right hand. The All-Star center left Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors after having his hand whacked by Marc Gasol and appeared to be in discomfort. He had X-rays that night which were negative. 

“Not concern the way that you would think that I would say, ‘Yes, there is concern.’” Brown said. “I don’t have concern it’s going to restrict him from playing against the Boston Celtics. I don’t have concern that it’s going to minimize his effectiveness.”

Embiid was listed as questionable with left ankle soreness and the decision that he’d play wasn’t official until about 30 minutes before tip-off, after he’d gone through pregame warmups. The desire to avoid any sort of unnecessary layoff evidently outweighed the notion of exercising special caution with his health. 

He started the game aggressively against Houston’s ultra-small lineup, scoring seven points within the first five minutes. There was, however, cause for slight worry when he grabbed at his right hand late in the first quarter and checked out of the game. He returned at the start of the second period, played 23 minutes and finished with 14 points and six rebounds.

His decision-making when double teamed was less precise than in the early seeding games and he turned it over five times. That’s not worthy of much examination in a meaningless game, but Embiid will have to “quarterback the gym” effectively when the Celtics inevitably send help defenders his way. 

The Sixers’ chances of beating Boston sure don’t look great unless Embiid is healthy and playing very well. Embiid will hope this is the first postseason of his career when he can check off both those boxes. 

1st-half positives

There was a lot to like about the first half for the Sixers, who had a 71-47 lead at the break. Embiid, Tobias Harris, Alec Burks and Furkan Korkmaz all scored in double figures.

Burks’ emergence as an enterprising scorer, solid ball handler and sensible facilitator off the bench was one of the best seeding game developments for the Sixers. Those were all traits the Sixers knew he had when they acquired the 29-year-old from the Warriors in February, and he’s showcased them at a high level in Disney World. 

As a team, the Sixers shot 18 for 38 from three-point range in the game and ended their eight seeding games with a 41.6 percent mark from long distance. 

Josh Richardson was the primary defender on James Harden. Though the MVP finalist scored 27 points and had 10 assists, he turned it over seven times and didn’t get much help from his supporting cast. The Rockets were without Russell Westbrook, who is sidelined by a right quad sprain. 

Houston went on a 24-11 run to start the second half. There was an odd exchange early in the third quarter when Embiid, frustrated after not receiving a call against Harden in the post, gave the eight-time All-Star a shove with his right arm to pick up his fifth foul. Harden was then the one called for a technical, apparently for tossing the ball in Embiid’s direction. It was not a prudent sequence from Embiid. 

A lingering rotation question 

The Sixers’ first two substitutions were Burks for Shake Milton and Korkmaz for Embiid. Matisse Thybulle and Mike Scott were the other two bench players to appear in the first quarter before Embiid’s brief stint on the bench at the end of the period. 

Glenn Robinson III missed Friday’s game with a left hip pointer, and that injury means the team’s rotation is not entirely certain. He first hurt his hip in the Sixers’ second scrimmage, returned for games against Portland and Phoenix, then sat out the final two seeding contests. On Tuesday, Robinson said he was still feeling the injury at times when he did specific things like talk and laugh. Brown on Friday said Robinson’s situation was “a little up in the air right now.”

Scott is a veteran who's helpful to have available in the postseason, but Robinson’s perimeter defense could be valuable against Boston’s talented wings, including Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It’s also quite possible Korkmaz’s defense could be problematic vs. the Celtics, which might be another route to Robinson (if healthy) receiving substantial playoff minutes. Brown endorsed Korkmaz’s defense Wednesday, but it’s fair to wonder whether he’s equipped to play Boston.

To Korkmaz’s credit, he’s playing with ample confidence and has shown he can occasionally swing games with his shotmaking when that’s the case. 

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Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers assistant coach Ime Udoka is, according to NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh, “the biggest name to watch” in the Bulls’ search for a new head coach.

Chicago fired Jim Boylen on Friday. NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson reports former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavs assistant Stephen Silas and Bucks assistant Darvin Ham are also expected to be included in Chicago's search. Bulls GM Marc Eversley used to be the Sixers’ vice president of player personnel. 

Udoka joined the Sixers this season after spending seven years as an assistant with the Spurs. In September, he said that he was responsible for game planning and strategizing against “eight or nine” opponents under Gregg Popovich. Brett Brown assigned him to be in charge of the Sixers’ defense, which is rated eighth in the NBA, and he's looked to install more aggressive defensive concepts. He’s a well-respected former player who, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania is also a candidate for the Nets job.

From the Sixers’ perspective, part of what may complicate this situation is Brown’s status. Here’s what Haberstroh wrote on that subject:  

Over the next few weeks, league insiders are keeping an eye on the situation in Philadelphia as the Sixers have underwhelmed for the second straight season. If the short-handed Sixers lose in the first round, Udoka could be in line for a promotion with the Sixers.

“The Sixers may not want another coach to leave their organization. Brown’s top assistant job has been a springboard to head-coaching positions throughout the NBA. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce’s last stops before their current gigs was the bench in Philly. 

In response to rumors last May that the Sixers’ second-round loss to the Raptors may have put Brown’s job in jeopardy, his players defended him vehemently. The team’s supersized roster has disappointed in this highly unusual, pandemic-affected season, as the presence of Al Horford has boosted the Sixers’ backup center play but generally not helped the team otherwise. Brown’s new-look starting lineup with Shake Milton at point guard and Ben Simmons at power forward only had three games together before Simmons injured his left knee. 

The Sixers’ first-round series against the Celtics begins on Monday night (see series schedule).

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