76ers

With altered roles, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor star in Sixers' win

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With altered roles, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor star in Sixers' win

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The growing pains for big men Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel have been well documented this season. In many instances, the pair has not been able to mesh on the floor together, causing coach Brett Brown to alter his rotations.

Other times, Okafor and Noel look like the second coming of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, though those have been few and far between.

But in the 103-98 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay), Okafor and Noel were simpatico in their new, altered roles. Okafor, the rookie center, played the four-spot on defense while Noel, the rim protector, played the five on defense.

The result was what many had hoped for when the Sixers drafted Okafor last June to go alongside Noel.

“We’re always in a fistfight with [Brooklyn] and we needed [Okafor and Noel] to get some separation,” Brown said.

Okafor pulled down a career-high 17 rebounds — seven of them on the offensive glass — to go with a game-high 22 points. Noel notched 18 points to go with four steals and three blocks as the Sixers picked up just their second win this season without Ish Smith in the lineup.

Smith, resting a sprained ankle suffered in Friday’s loss in Washington (see story), watched as the big men held down the frontcourt and point guard T.J. McConnell scored a career-high 17 points with six assists in 29 minutes in his first start since Dec. 13.

Though McConnell had not played more than 22 minutes since Dec. 11, his “best Ish Smith impression” was the perfect antidote for the Nets as the Sixers whittled it down.

“Wow, he was all over the place,” Brown said. “He disrupted so much. Whether it’s picking up a ball carrier or blowing up a dribble handoff or just getting his hands on something in traffic, he was inspirational.”

In a game in which there were 16 lead changes and 12 ties, inspiration was needed. So where McConnell guided the ship, Noel and Okafor gave those hope-inducing looks into the future. The duo combined for 40 points on 17 for 27 shooting (see highlights).

Better yet, the Sixers dominated the Nets in the paint, scoring 54 points down low to the Nets’ 40. All of those paint points came from Brook Lopez and Thad Young.

“We made a decision to go with our big guys down the stretch,” Brown said, though it often had not been the case this season. “Jahlil did a good job [playing the four] and usually I’m taking Jahlil or Nerlens out [down the stretch]. The rotation we found was easier for me because it became tighter.”

It was tight as a vice in the first quarter when the Nets scored just 12 points and shot 5 for 17. Plus, the Sixers grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to Brooklyn’s 27 defensive boards.

Perhaps the big men are settling into their new defensive roles?

“It helps the team,” Noel said. “With me being around the rim, it keeps my shot-blocking presence especially when they run the pick-and-roll. It changes the game.”

Okafor is still feeling his way around the four-spot on defense, and certainly chasing Young around is no easy task for even the savviest of veterans. But Okafor found himself in position for rebounds, which had been a side of his game that needed work through the early part of the season.

Before Saturday’s game, Okafor said a film session and a chat with Jerami Grant helped him position himself better for rebounds.

“Last game I talked to Jerami a little bit because he’s always playing hard and he’s always in position to get rebounds and I asked him for some advice,” Okafor said. “We watched film today before the game and I have to give a lot of credit to Jerami.”

The Sixers, meanwhile, give a big thumbs up to Okafor and Noel for making the switch on the defensive side. In a season with so many moving parts and tweaks and alterations to lineups and roles, Brown’s decision to move Okafor and Noel on defense might be the biggest one yet.

In the meantime, the Sixers picked up their eighth win of the season and first against teams in the Atlantic Division. At 8-43, the Sixers need two more wins in the last 31 games to avoid posting the worst record in NBA history.

The Sixers continue the homestand on Monday when they host the Blake Griffin-less Los Angeles Clippers. The Sixers lost to the Clippers on Jan.2, 130-99, and are winless against the Clips since the 2010-11 season.

Following the game against the Clippers, the Sixers host the struggling Sacramento Kings, who have lost six of their last seven.

Sixers Talk podcast: New-look starting 5; What food would you break quarantine for?

Sixers Talk podcast: New-look starting 5; What food would you break quarantine for?

On this edition of Sixers Talk, we discuss which food we'd break quarantine for, the Sixers' new-look starting five and much more.

(2:16) — Richaun Holmes forced to quarantine after leaving the bubble for food.
(10:28) — Two players test positive for COVID-19 while inside the bubble.
(15:54) — With Shake Milton at point guard, it sounds like Sixers are leaning toward a new starting five.

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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.”

Subscribe and rate Sixers Talk: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | YouTube



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More on the Sixers