Brett Brown

Sixers reflect on the life of Kobe Bryant

Sixers reflect on the life of Kobe Bryant

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers will play a basketball game tomorrow, at 7 p.m. against the Golden State Warriors.

They understandably didn’t field questions about that game Monday. The team instead was focused on the tragic deaths on Sunday of 41-year-old Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.

After meeting as a team and sharing their personal stories about Bryant, a few Sixers also talked about Bryant with the media following practice. 

GM Elton Brand on the tragic crash and on Bryant

“My condolences to [his wife] Vanessa, his family, all the families that lost their loved ones in the tragic accident yesterday. Kobe meant a lot. Kobe meant a lot to us all. It wasn’t just what he accomplished but how he accomplished it — how he worked, his tenacity, his passion, getting the most out of his talent. … We all lost someone that was special to us, special to this area, special to the league. We’ll try to commemorate him tomorrow and hopefully show how much this area loved him and continue to do so. It’s a tough time for the area, tough time for the organization, and he will certainly be missed.”

Al Horford on his memories of Bryant

“With Kobe, the two things that really stand out to me are his competitiveness on the floor, and I told this to the group, just that fear that he used to put in his opponent's eyes. The only way you would know that is [if] you got to go and play against him. Very few players have that. He had it. He was just such a competitor and it was something that I always admire and respect. I don't want to make this about anything but to honor him. At another time, I'll share things about me and him, but right now it's just remembering him and his greatness.”

Horford on his reaction to the news

“Just disbelief. I didn't think it was true. Coming to grips with that, it's something hard to grasp. Right away, I was with my family at the time and my wife said to me, putting things in perspective, imagine how his wife feels right now, his family, so that just had us in a very tough place yesterday just thinking about that.”

Head coach Brett Brown on a story he told the team

“I had the chance a few years ago in his farewell tour to sit in my office [with him] for 45 minutes alone and just talk Philly hoops. Ironically, my son goes to Lower Merion High School, he plays for [Bryant’s] high school coach, [Gregg Downer]. The thing that came out of that for me, just sitting there talking with him, it was an easy, real conversation. He cared, he was engaged — it wasn’t something he had to do. He came back and we just talked. 

“We had some friends and experiences in the Olympics and so on that we could speak about, but he talked lots about his family. He blew me away talking about — I said, ‘What’s life for you afterwards now?’ And he started talking about animation. He was really involved with animation and he had this desire to get involved with kids’ literacy, and the connections he would have had with his Hollywood and Los Angeles life. He just was in the game. Even when he was about to leave the game, he was in life, he lived it. You could see in his face, he had a glow. It was a genuine, transparent conversation.”

Brown on game planning against Bryant 

“You would see, it was with like six minutes in the third period, he was just like, ‘I’m going to grab the game.’ He’d come out and be Mr. Unselfish and facilitator and kumbaya, and all of a sudden the game’s on the line … and he would just grab games. You could just see it in his face.

"So, game planning for him was as difficult as for any of the great players you’ve had to do it for. It just all goes back to that amazing mental toughness, amazing laser, assassin-like, ‘I’m going to go win this game. I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win games.’ And he really acted and played like that.”

On a circus-like night vs. Lakers, Shake Milton 'keeps it cool'

On a circus-like night vs. Lakers, Shake Milton 'keeps it cool'

The Sixers didn’t have regular starters Joel Embiid or Josh Richardson available Saturday night, turned the ball over 23 times and beat the Lakers by 17 points.

Through three quarters, their leading rebounder was second-year guard Shake Milton, who was making his first start of the season. 

The juicy story Saturday night was the matchup between LeBron James and his mentee Ben Simmons (see story). Milton slid into a supporting role without much trouble and looked like he belonged. Outside of an early bobble when Simmons found him on a backdoor cut, his pregame nerves weren’t evident.

“Big primetime game, everything like that,” Milton said. “But once the ball is tipped, you get up and down the floor one time, you’re good — it’s just basketball.”

In 25 minutes, he finished with seven points (3 of 5 shooting), three assists, a steal and nine rebounds — more than James, Anthony Davis or any Laker. What was more striking than the stats was Milton’s disposition. It was what we’ve seen when he’s had huge scoring games in the G League and when he’s been stuck on the Sixers’ bench. He stays composed and keeps things simple. 

“There is sort of like a poise, an inner peace — he plays at a non-rattled level,” Brett Brown said. “He really doesn't, to me, get rattled. He doesn't get [shaken] up.”

Milton said he’s always been like this — polished, poised, under control. 

“I think just growing up and playing through AAU and all my basketball experience, I’ve kind of always kept it cool," he said. "When you’re around guys like Ben, Tobias [Harris], Al [Horford], it gives you a lot of confidence to go out there and do what you have to do.”

The SMU product has said, fairly enough, that he thinks he has “one of the coolest names,” so that might help explain the origin story, or at least spice it up a bit.  

Regardless, he was effective Saturday night both on and off the ball, running dribble handoff actions with Simmons, getting the Australian the ball at the elbows, and setting up shop in the corners. He didn't do anything exceptional — perhaps outside of trying to stand his ground on a few occasions when James barreled toward the rim, including on the basket that put the Lakers’ star over Kobe Bryant on the all-time scoring list. He did a little bit of everything, though. 

With Richardson scheduled to be reevaluated in approximately two weeks, Harris thinks Milton is capable of showing more of what he can do now that he’s back in Brown’s rotation. 

“He’s a kid who comes in and works every single day and now he’s getting presented with an opportunity, and he did a great job at that,” Harris said. “There’s a lot more that he can do, too, that he’ll continue to build his confidence and go forward with that.”

The early stages of Milton’s NBA career have been marred by injuries. He missed summer league his rookie season because of a stress fracture in his back, broke his finger last February, sprained his ankle in summer league this year and suffered a left knee injury on Oct. 28.

It remains to be seen whether he’ll have a spot when Richardson returns, but it’s encouraging for Milton to see his work behind the scenes being rewarded. Milton’s time with the Delaware Blue Coats, his rehab and his individual workouts with player development coach Tyler Lashbrook all contributed to Brown being able to throw someone into his starting lineup who was far from overwhelmed or embarrassed in front of a national audience. 

“It’s definitely hard,” Milton said. “Everybody wants to play. You gotta take it as an opportunity to just lock in and make sure you’re on top of your stuff so that when your number is called you’re able to perform.”

He probably won’t outrebound one of the best players in NBA history again, but it seems safe to bank on Milton’s steadiness.  

On a night that sometimes felt like an evening at the circus — with swarms of media members waiting around every corner, eager to chronicle James’ every move, and a loud, passionate Wells Fargo Center crowd urging on Simmons’ aggression — a 23-year-old kept a level head. 

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LeBron James enjoying Ben Simmons' evolution

LeBron James enjoying Ben Simmons' evolution

There was a little over eight minutes left in the game. Ben Simmons was being guarded by Danny Green. There was nobody there to protect the rim as Simmons had the ball at the top of the key.

Simmons didn’t hesitate. He didn’t make a move. He simply blew by Green, used his sinewy frame to create space and then threw down a vicious two-handed dunk.

In a game matched up against his mentor LeBron James, Simmons kind of looked like … well, LeBron James in leading the Sixers to a 108-91 win over the Lakers Saturday night (see observations).

“At the end of the game, they actually came up and started guarding him,” Brett Brown said. “So I put him in a bunch of pick-and-rolls as the point guard. Put him in a lot of elbow action, offensively. And then defensively, you look at the disturbance that Matisse [Thybulle] and Ben caused. ... He was really special tonight on a very talented court.”

It would’ve been great if the Sixers just got what they did out of Simmons on the offensive end (28 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists), but he was also stellar defensively.

James had eight turnovers on the night and much of the credit for that goes to Simmons (four steals) and the rookie Thybulle (five steals). Part of the credit also has to go to Brown for his defensive strategy against James — hedging on screens and not allowing James to get mismatches.

For as unique as the pick-and-roll pairing of James and star big man Anthony Davis is, the Sixers have a unique duo to defend it in Simmons and veteran Al Horford. While both L.A. All-Stars got their numbers, they also combined for 13 turnovers and never truly got into a rhythm.

But this story is about Simmons. 

In the nine games since Joel Embiid went on the shelf, Simmons is averaging 21.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 2.6 steals a game. Over his last three games, he’s 21 of 29 (72.4 percent) from the line. With so much talk about his fourth-quarter scoring, he was 3 of 4 for six points and three assists in the final period Saturday.

The jump shot hasn’t come along like many hoped it would, but Simmons’ game is clearly evolving.

“I was out there at times just watching him just figuring things out, whether it’s laying it up or making the pass,” Horford said. “It’s amazing. He’s coming down the lane and it’s just like, ‘Good luck.’ He’s just playing with a lot of confidence right now, so that’s good to see.”

At practice Friday, Brown was asked how you go about slowing down James. He talked about not being able to guard him 1-on-1: “Here he comes, straight at you, good luck.”

James still got his, scoring 29 points and, in the process, passing Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Now playing for Bryant’s former team, James reminisced about how he got to know the “Black Mamba.”

Bryant is now a spectator as James passed him. James, now 35, knows he’s in the twilight of his career. Though he appears to still have elite basketball left, he spoke like a man that senses his own mortality.

While this game wasn’t a full-blown torch passing, there was a bit of that vibe as James spoke.

“It’s pretty amazing,” James said on having Bryant watching him now. “That’s pretty much how I’m going to be when I’m done playing, being able to come back and watch this beautiful game and hopefully there’s somebody still playing the game at a high level. Like the guy across the hallway, Ben Simmons, I can sit and watch him and see how much he continues to grow and watch him do what he does … he’s growing every day and it’s a pretty cool thing to see him.”

Perhaps shooting to pass James on the all-time scoring list in the future is a bit lofty, but the Sixers will take more peformances like Saturday's from Simmons in the present.

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