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."
Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.