Shake Milton to the rescue?
Sure. Why not?
When he took the Sixers job, head coach Doc Rivers vividly remembered what Milton had done last March, scoring 39 points against the Clippers in a performance that seemed to surprise everyone but him. Rivers didn’t think Milton was a one-hit wonder. He believed he had a blossoming bench scorer, one who could fill a Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford-esque role.
Milton was always too skilled and too sure of himself to be resigned to a perpetual slump. There’d be a moment when the best version of his game would emerge, or at least a familiar one.
The Sixers were teetering and the team’s bench couldn’t have been any less productive when Milton entered Tuesday night’s Game 2 of their second-round series against the Hawks with 2:46 left in the third quarter. Atlanta had scored 32 first-half bench points and the Sixers were still searching for their first.
Milton broke the ice, making a three from the left wing.
He later nailed three more long-range jumpers, including a 36-footer to beat the third-quarter buzzer, and scored 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting in the Sixers' 118-102 win. George Hill and Dwight Howard were effective alongside him, too.
“I thought the second unit was struggling,” Rivers said. “We had zero points at halftime from our second unit. I talked to Shake today. I said, ‘This is a long run, man, if we do this right, and everyone’s going to get a shot. And stay ready.’ … Shake came back last night, played 1-on-1 at 10 o’clock at night. He shot extra. He prepared himself and he believed that he could get another shot, and he got it and he gave us a huge lift. So I’m very happy for him.”
Joel Embiid, the more predictable standout Tuesday with 40 points and 13 rebounds, shared a similar pregame message.
“For some reason, I felt like he was going to be needed,” Embiid said, “so before the game I told him to get ready. I love all these guys and he’s one of them, and I believe in all of them, because I want to win it all and I’m going to need them to do so. I’m extremely happy for him. But the series is only 1-1. There’s nothing to really be happy about. You’ve just got to try to go (to Atlanta) and win both, and take one at a time.”
Milton, who did not speak to reporters after the game, is accustomed to the fluctuations in fortune of NBA life. Since being taken 54th in the 2018 draft, he’s shined in the G League, suffered frustrating injuries, been informed he was out of the Sixers’ rotation and started playoff games. That was all before this season, every player’s first full one during a pandemic.
During the Sixers’ first-round series win over the Wizards, Milton made 4 of 19 field goals and saw Tyrese Maxey and Furkan Korkmaz play minutes that once would’ve been his. In Game 1 of this series, he checked in during the fourth quarter, committed a turnover and checked out after 38 seconds of action. Everything about his playoff showing until Tuesday had been a disappointment.
The questions about what was wrong when his jumpers this season weren’t consistently falling might have gotten old, but the slumps themselves have never appeared to fundamentally shatter Milton’s confidence or alter his approach.
“Nothing changed,” he said on April 22, the night he snapped a 6-for-24 stretch with 20 points in Milwaukee. “Shoot when you’re open, pass when you’re not. The game’s always going to tell you what to do. Just be locked in and make plays.”
With Milton, his path is worth recalling on these occasions when it appears there’s widespread incredulity at his competence. He spent his rookie season on a two-way contract, splitting his time between Philadelphia — where his locker was next to Embiid's and it was necessary to “carve out” space — and the G League.
He hasn’t seen it all, but he’s cleared quite a few hurdles for a 24-year-old. Whatever's next, it won't be stunning.