Normally once the playoffs start, coaches will look to players with experience. They want battle-tested veterans that have been through the rigors of an NBA postseason.
For the Sixers, there is a chance that they’ll be counting on three players 23 years old or younger. Two of them have never played a single playoff game while the other has played less than 40 career postseason minutes.
Yet Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton have all played significant roles for the Sixers at one time or another this season. Will they be ready if their numbers are called in the playoffs?
The Sixers will have to hope their young contributors don’t think too much about the situation they’re in and just play basketball.
You don’t know — no team knows what they look like as a team,” Thybulle said. “I know what I’ve been doing individually in my workouts, I know that I feel good, my shot looks good, I feel like I’m in shape, but in terms of what that means for the 76ers or for any other team in the league, I think it’s fairly unknown. I think for us, for me, it’s all about the challenge of hitting the ground running.
Throughout the course of his rookie year, Thybulle has done well to take things as they come. Whether it was being asked to guard Kemba Walker on opening night or start for a stretch when Joel Embiid was out, Thybulle has been thrown into the fire more than once this season.
Though he’s had his ups and downs and his playing time has fluctuated, Thybulle proved to be a strong and disruptive defender. He’s one of only eight players in the league to have at least 80 steals and 40 blocks. If a guard or wing is giving the Sixers an exceptionally hard time in the playoffs, Brett Brown could look to Thybulle to help mitigate the damage.
If the Sixers are in need of shooting, Brown would likely turn to Korkmaz. The Turkish wing has had somewhat of an improbable season. After the Sixers struck out on signing veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver this summer, GM Elton Brand circled back to Korkmaz, who was reportedly on the verge of heading back overseas to play.
Korkmaz has rewarded the organization by providing some ridiculously hot shooting that has bailed the Sixers’ sometimes clunky offense out of jams. He leads the team in threes made and is shooting 39.7 percent from three, the second-best mark on the team.
We were having this conversation every time with Coach Brown,” Korkmaz said. “Every time he just keeps telling me I just need to keep doing what I did all season and keep doing it for the playoffs in Orlando. Nothing changed. Also, we know playoffs in Orlando is going to be more physical than the regular season. We all expect that and we’re all ready for that and we’re all working for that. And Brett said to me just keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to be an important piece, and I’m trying to get ready for it.
Brown had a similar message for Milton, who may have the upper hand on Thybulle and Korkmaz because of his diverse skillset. If Brown is truly interested in unleashing Ben Simmons as a screener and roller, Milton could be key in tapping into that look as the primary ball handler.
Unlike Thybulle and Korkmaz, Milton’s true opportunity didn’t come until later in the season. After a few solid performances before the All-Star break, Milton was told by Brown that he wasn’t going to be in the rotation with everyone healthy and the additions of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III.
Milton simply waited for his next chance to play and got it when Ben Simmons went down with a nerve impingement in his lower back. The second-year player took over as the team’s starting point guard and crushed the opportunity, averaging 17.8 points and shooting a blistering 60.4 percent from three over his last nine games.
I definitely feel more confident,” Milton said. “I’d say it’s probably stemming from the fact that playing those last nine games or whatever with all those guys out, it gave me the opportunity to kind of go out there and test things and see what could work, and really explore my game. I feel like for any player, when they’re given an opportunity to do something like that, to see what works and have freedoms, I feel like you’re going to see growth anywhere. I definitely feel good, I feel confident, and I’m excited.
None of these players have a rotational spot locked up. Burks, Robinson and Mike Scott have the advantage of experience. Newcomer Ryan Broekhoff may even force his way into the mix. Brown has said he'd like to have his playoff rotation down to nine, which should create healthy competition and perhaps another "quiet tournament" during the eight seeding games.
In an unprecedented situation at Disney World, the Sixers hope this trio of young players doesn’t concern themselves with going into uncharted territory and focuses more on doing the things that got them here.
At the end of the day, it’s still basketball.
“We’re finding ourselves in a situation where [the playoffs will be different than usual],” Thybulle said, “so I think it’s going to be new for everyone, even vets who have been part of the playoffs, trying to get a feel for what this is going to be like. But I’m open to the challenge and I’m excited for what’s in store.”
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