Brett Brown wasn’t an especially restrictive coach for the Sixers.
He encouraged Ben Simmons to use his considerable talents in the open floor, didn’t yank his stars from the game when they erred and almost always found a silver lining or two in defeat.
It was noticeable, however, that Doc Rivers stressed in training camp he wanted Simmons and Shake Milton to play “free” and be the best versions of themselves. Milton in particular sounds like he appreciates that message, as well as the fact that he’s no longer scrapping for a rotation spot the way he was last preseason.
He scored 19 points in the Sixers’ 108-99 preseason win Tuesday night over the Celtics and showed why Rivers and his teammates had been so eager to laud him during camp.
“Him putting the ball in my hands and challenging me offensively and defensively, just to be aggressive and to be out there playing loose and playing free, it definitely feels good,” Milton said. “It feels like there’s a weight off your shoulders. You’re able to go out there and play loose and really not be afraid. You don’t want to make mistakes, but not be afraid to make mistakes. Be able to be out there and just play your game. So it definitely feels good.”
Milton’s strong showing Tuesday doesn’t guarantee a Sixth Man of the Year campaign is to come or indicate he’s a virtuosic scorer under Rivers. Fifteen of his points came in the third quarter, which he started next to Simmons because the Sixers sat Danny Green for the second half. His offense when he’s surrounded by fellow bench players and has a greater burden to create shots could prove more challenging.
There are some similarities to Milton’s time in the G League, when he was generally the best player on the floor and the Delaware Blue Coats asked him to run the offense, draw fouls and trust in his game. The competition is better now, but Rivers wants to convey the same idea — that the Sixers only need the 24-year-old to be who he is.
“He was great,” Rivers said. “And that’s what we need from him — we need him to be Shake every night. I tell him literally every day, ‘Be Shake. Be Shake.’ I probably have said that 15 times already. And I thought tonight he did that. He was very comfortable, under control, didn’t force a lot of shots. He was fantastic.”
Rivers also doesn’t mind motivating his players through direct criticism. In his first game back after having surgery on his left knee in August, Simmons wasn’t pushing the pace to Rivers’ liking in the first quarter. Rivers “jumped up” to make it known that walking the ball up the floor was unacceptable.
“I love that,” Simmons said. “I was just trying to get my legs under me, so that first quarter, it was tough. Once I found them, we got into a flow. I think we went on a stretch where we got five defensive stops in a row and pushed that lead early. But overall, I love that Doc’s going to make me be aggressive and tell me to push the ball.”
Along with having an edge over Brown in terms of head coaching credentials, Rivers made it further as a player. Brown played at Boston University and knew Simmons’ father well from his time coaching in Australia, but Rivers was an NBA point guard for 13 seasons. Simmons has also been working closely with assistant coach Sam Cassell, who played 15 years in the league.
The fact that Rivers has walked in Simmons’ shoes matters to the two-time All-Star.
“He’s a hooper,” Simmons said of Rivers. “He’s played the game so it’s easy to relate to him, and for him to tell us certain things and for us to really understand it on the floor. He’s going to be honest and keep it real with us, which is what I love about him.”
Simmons’ comments weren’t intended to classify Brown as "anti-hooper" or to put him down, but they help give us an early sense of what’s changed for the Sixers at head coach.
There doesn’t appear to be anything obstructing Rivers’ messages from reaching his new team. That may very well change when the Sixers start losing games and there are reasons to doubt Rivers’ teaching points — it did for Brown when pressure and expectations increased — but so far, so good.