Shake Milton

Sixers vs. Spurs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers vs. Spurs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Updated: 6:19 p.m. 

The Sixers (39-27) and Spurs (29-36) will meet Monday over eight months after their first matchup this season, a 115-104 Sixers win on Nov. 22. It’s technically a home game for the Sixers, the team’s first since March 11. They were 29-2 at Wells Fargo Center. 

Mike Scott (right knee soreness) and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) are out. Kyle O'Quinn missed his coronavirus test on Sunday and is not eligible to play, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 8 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7 
Where: Visa Athletic Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

An outlier opener? 

In several ways, Saturday’s defeat to the Pacers wasn’t like most for the Sixers this season.

The team outscored Indiana by a point in nine Joel Embiid-Al Horford minutes but saw their 10-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate when Horford stepped in at center, the opposite of the trend this year. The starting backcourt combined for four points on five field goal attempts. Turnover problems that had characterized seasons past resurfaced as the Sixers gave it away 14 times in the first half and 21 times in the game. They’d been 10th in turnovers (14.2 per game) before the hiatus. Ben Simmons’ defense was not anywhere close to as great as it’s been for much of the season. 

A loss is a loss, but perhaps the Sixers on Monday will look more like the team we saw in their first 65 games. 

Another size disparity 

Jakob Poeltl is the only traditional frontcourt player in San Antonio’s starting lineup, which means the Sixers will again have plenty of size advantages. With LaMarcus Aldridge out for the season after right shoulder surgery, DeMar DeRozan is the Spurs’ second-tallest starter at 6-foot-6. Shake Milton and Josh Richardson are the Sixers’ shortest starters at 6-5. 

The Spurs have opened well at Disney World, winning their first two games and moving into ninth in the Western Conference, but the Sixers will present a unique challenge. 

'Walking that line'

Brett Brown doesn’t generally have an endless level of patience with younger players. He’s sometimes quick to pull the plug when they make mistakes or have trouble adjusting to a new situation.

Following Milton’s poor first game in the new starting lineup (no points, three assists, three turnovers, five fouls), it will be interesting to see Brown’s approach if Milton struggles again early. 

“The tolerance level … whether it’s trying to persevere and grow Shake, whether it’s the distribution of how you actually use Ben Simmons, all of those things are always on my mind,” he said Sunday. “It’s the launching pad that we have now where you’ve got some games before you enter the playoffs. And life moves quickly where you get stuck in this current where you’re going to blink and the playoffs are going to be right at your doorstep. 

“Walking that line of persevering and patience vs. gut feel — you like it or you don’t — that ecosystem is my job.”

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Brett Brown's approach with Al Horford-Joel Embiid minutes, Alec Burks' 'lightning in a bottle' role, more on Sixers

Brett Brown's approach with Al Horford-Joel Embiid minutes, Alec Burks' 'lightning in a bottle' role, more on Sixers

Updated: 5:37 p.m. 

Brett Brown said in May that he hopes to play Joel Embiid approximately 38 minutes per game in the playoffs, a figure he’s since admitted is “probably ambitious” but nevertheless doubled down on. 

The Sixers may have won if Embiid had hit that mark in their first seeding game Saturday night, based on how well he performed and how much the team struggled when he was off the floor. Embiid was plus-21 in 34 minutes and had 41 points and 21 rebounds in the Sixers’ 127-121 loss to the Pacers. A 10-point lead when Embiid exited with 8:38 remaining in the game was a two-point deficit by the time he returned with 5:04 to go.

Al Horford had 10 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes and was a minus-26. In a departure from the norm, the Sixers managed to tread water in the time Embiid and Horford were together (plus-1 in nine minutes) thanks to a combination of fruitful Embiid bully ball and Horford converting a couple of open jumpers in the third quarter. They struggled, however, with Horford at center. Brown employed his original frontcourt this year for stints at the end of the first three quarters, but not at all in the fourth. 

What factored into his decision-making? He explained Sunday that he still considers his usage of the Embiid-Horford pairing to be mostly driven by matchups. It seems he’ll be more inclined to close games with Horford against larger teams that don’t put as great a strain on the 34-year-old’s perimeter defense. Not many teams have lumbering power forwards in the modern NBA, of course, but the Pacers were especially small and quick with All-Star Domantas Sabonis sidelined by plantar fasciitis. 

I just go straight to, ‘Are we going to be able to chase?’” Brown said. “For instance, last night you’re playing against a bunch of track stars. T.J. Warren at that point (of the fourth quarter) had 40 (points) or thereabouts, and it’s, what are you going to do to chase those Holiday brothers and T.J. Warren? To give you a categoric, organic answer of ‘This is Joel and Al Horford’s world,’ I can’t. … It’s who we’re playing, what is the situation? 

“You did see a little bit of Ben (Simmons), Al and Joel, and we still gave Shake (Milton) the ball on not many but some possessions last night. Shake got in foul trouble and things started to happen a little bit differently than was planned. … You’ve gotta go with the situation and make a decision.

‘Lightning in a bottle’ 

Brown had a rather high appraisal of Alec Burks’ work in his 12 minutes against Indiana. Burks did commit four of the Sixers’ 21 turnovers, but he also provided nine points, three fewer than Milton, Josh Richardson, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle and Raul Neto combined. 

“It’s always a defensive thing,” Brown said. “He came in, I thought he played, he looked cocky. He had the ball at times. We ran him as a two off screens. I thought he looked good. And then you get into, you’ve got to stop the Holiday brothers. T.J. Warren. … So Alec, I thought his defense was pretty good. He did have a few turnovers, like a lot of us had, just kind of careless passes to an elbow or trying to go behind-the-back pocket pass out of the pick-and-roll. 

“I feel like Alec had a really good seven or eight days in camp. I thought last night he looked good, he scored, and it’s always on my mind to try to continue to grow his role as it relates to lightning in a bottle, somebody that can come in and just get buckets quickly, especially as it relates to a playoff environment.”

Teammates call Burks “Buckets,” so this is clearly not a foreign role for him. 

Of note in the ever-evolving competition for playoff minutes on the Sixers’ bench: Glenn Robinson III participated in practice but is doubtful for Monday's game vs. the Spurs with the left hip pointer injury that sidelined him Saturday. Mike Scott will miss a second straight game with right knee soreness. 

Pushing the message 

Milton chose not to focus on basketball the day after a challenging night on the court.

He wanted to talk about racial injustice instead. 

I came out here to just say that to anybody who is out here watching me, listening to me, keep fighting and keep putting the word out about what’s going on,” he said. “Don’t let up. The iron right now is hot about what’s going on in this country, the racial injustices that are happening, so keep fighting and keep putting that word out. I just want to say to Breonna Taylor’s family that we are sorry that it has taken so long, and we know (Kentucky attorney general) Daniel Cameron has the power, so we need to keep pushing to keep making his seat hot, for him to make a decision. 

“Also, I want to say rest in peace to Breonna Taylor, rest in peace to Ahmaud Arbery, rest in peace to Kalief Browder, as well. That’s all I have to say.

Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and many other NBA players have also called on Cameron to take action in the case of Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician killed on March 13 in Louisville. 

Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot to death on Feb. 23 in Savannah, Georgia. Browder died by suicide at age 22 after spending three years at Rikers Island in New York for a case that never went to trial. 

The Sixers protested Saturday by kneeling during the national anthem, and Milton said the team is working on further plans. 

“… Hopefully, along with educating people and putting that message out there, we are going to give people tangible things that they can do for action to make change in the communities where they’re at,” he said. 

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Sixers give explanations for heated exchange between Joel Embiid and Shake Milton

Sixers give explanations for heated exchange between Joel Embiid and Shake Milton

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."

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