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March 01, 2020

Instant observations: Sixers lose matinee to Clippers despite Shake Milton career-high

Shake Milton poured in a career-high 39 points in a Sunday afternoon showcase in L.A., but it wasn't enough for the Sixers, who fell 136-130 to the Clippers to open their road trip.

Here's what I saw on Sunday.

The Good

• When Milton was thrown into the starting lineup for emergency purposes against the Lakers last month, the move was met with shock. How could a player who had been mostly out of the rotation for months step into a critical role?

No one is surprised by Milton starting anymore. He has come on in a big way for the Sixers since returning from the All-Star break, and he led the way for Philly in the early part of the Clippers game, canning his first five shots and adding a powerful dunk on top of great pull-up shooting.

But the dunks are the least important part of the full package. Milton's combo guard abilities separate him from the vast majority of guards who have come through Philadelphia over the last...five years? 10 years? 20 years? Needless to say, they have not had many people on the team who can dribble, score from all three levels, and playmaker to boot. That's part of the reason they went out and got Alec Burks at the deadline.

The solution to some of their offensive problems may have been hiding in plain sight all along. I'm not expecting Milton to score 20+ points a half, but if you put the ball in his hands, he can make teams pay if they drop coverage on him in pick-and-rolls, which changes how teams defend him, and by extension, how they react to the screener setting him free in the first place.

There was absolutely nothing the Clippers could do to slow him down in the first half. He got Paul George on a switch and took him to the rack to draw a foul. He had Kawhi Leonard on him late in the clock, and and not only did he get past him, he deposited a sweet scoop layup before the buzzer went off. He was absolutely sensational on Sunday afternoon. The man apparently set the NBA record for most consecutive made threes with 14 across his last few games.

My preseason prediction was that he would be the bench wing (non-Thybulle edition) to emerge as the biggest contributor, and while Furkan Korkmaz's minutes lead is too large to close at this point, it looks like Milton has finally arrived.

• No one has taken more bullets in this space this season than Mike Scott, so he deserves his praise for Sunday's performance. Thrust into a larger role with the Sixers running thin, I thought Scott added more than just shooting to the lineup against the Clippers, making some effort/energy plays to extend possessions or end them on the defensive end.

More than anything else, it's just good to know these sort of games are still within him, and that the Sixers could presumably turn to him in a pinch if they are looking for a Hail Mary in the playoffs. He's not going to show fear in any moment or any lineup, and that has value.

• Speaking of guys who have absolutely no fear of the moment, Burks is cut from that very same cloth. It's going to lead to some maddening lows, as it did during a brutal stretch for Philly at the end of the third quarter, but he will keep coming and keep firing if you give him the chance to. If the Sixers can somehow get him to look for his teammates a little more when he's attacking out of pick-and-rolls, they might really be onto something.

• Tobias Harris had a pretty good night at the office on offense against the Clippers, getting going from deep early and keeping them close at the end of the game with some aggressive moves to the basket. He is in The Good for that reason — this is a tough team to score against as a wing, and he more than did his job.

But looking forward, there are two primary issues with Harris as a go-to scorer, in this writer's opinion:

  1. He doesn't carry himself with the mentality of a go-to scorer
  2. His handle and quickness don't allow him to create enough regular separation

Those are theoretically separate ideas but they are sort of the "Chicken or the egg?" of his struggles against top competition. When he has one-on-one matchups, he's often forced to either take a tough mid-range shot or pass out of a drive because he doesn't have the speed or handle craft to properly separate. That leads to too many possessions where the Sixers have to reset and burn clock, and eventually jack shots up to avoid a turnover.

If that seems like nitpicking, it's only because the margins are extremely thin at the top. Maybe the Sixers win if Harris is merely "good" as a scorer, but it's more likely with their team construction that they need him to be great. 

• It goes down as another loss on the road for this group, but I think almost everyone watching would agree they could live with struggles on the road if the team competes like this. They got contributions from players assumed out of the rotation like Scott, hung around despite losing Horford to foul trouble, and ultimately climbed back into a game that looked to be trending toward a possible blowout at the end of the third quarter.

I get it, it won't bring all of you comfort, but that was a step forward. They can pick up wins on this road trip if they bring the same effort every night.

The Bad

• For as fun as the first half was for Philadelphia (or at least for Milton), they went into halftime nursing just a two-point lead over the Clippers. Giving up 70 points in a half, even to a team as loaded as the Clippers are, is not going to get it done in any venue.

The Clippers have some great shotmakers, so you can tip your cap on some of the makes from players like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Lou Williams to a lesser extent. But the Sixers weren't exactly offering a lot of resistance otherwise, and that's a function of the personnel they have left to compete with. Ben Simmons' defensive versatility is huge in this matchup, and once the Sixers lost Josh Richardson for the game, the best options they had on the perimeter were a rookie (Matisse Thybulle) and a guy who has struggled defensively since he arrived in Philly (Glenn Robinson III).

Once the perimeter defense gets exposed, it puts more pressure on the interior, and the Sixers struggled there. Al Horford is still good on the first read, but unlike Joel Embiid, he struggles to follow up his contests with rebounds in traffic, which leads to second chances, putbacks, and fouls. Kyle O'Quinn has played hard, but he doesn't have the length to repeatedly win at the rim with leaky defense in front of him.

Not really a lot the Sixers are going to be able to do here unless Horford finds another gear at some point on this trip.

• On the Horford topic, because you know we had to stay there, he got absolutely terrorized by the Clippers' rolling bigs on Sunday afternoon. Montrezl Harrell absolutely feasted when matched up with Horford throughout the game, either exploding right past him or bodying him on the glass, scoring or getting fouled on putback attempts.

There have been far too many games like this to write it off as a momentary trend at this point. Horford has gotten crushed by athletic bigs of all shapes and sizes this season, and the bad news is there are more lean, rim-running centers in the league than perhaps there have ever been. He's liable to get blown by or dunked over/around at basically all times right now, and that problem isn't going to get any better against playoff competition.

If he were offering terrific defense otherwise, you would set that matchup-specific concern aside, and Horford can definitely summon some moment-to-moment bursts of athleticism. But the same concerns are amplified when he's in space against anyone with speed, and when players are no longer to sustain high-level play, that's when you worry about the impact of aging.

The shame of it is that I think Horford has shown more of what he brings to the table on offense in recent games, at least in fits and starts. He helped create some easy buckets for teammates with his passing, and Horford's screen-setting in pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops was a factor in their hot start. 

• Robinson III's much-talked-about confusion over his role is not going to matter very much if he continues to play as poorly as he has since joining the Sixers. He isn't making shots, he's blowing defensive assignments, and he is going to find himself on the outside looking in if he can't fix one or both of those things.

Shooting variance is something that happens for all role players, but I would argue Robinson III's defense has been the bigger disappointment for Philly. He just looks lost and unsure of the scouting report at times, leading to some real head-scratching plays. Leaving Landry Shamet completely alone on the perimeter, for example, seems like something you shouldn't need a lot of messaging on if you're an NBA player.

• Speaking of poor defense, man, Korkmaz got picked on big time on Sunday. He has done a better job coping as the season has worn on, relying on his understanding of the system to make up for his physical tools, but you can't hide those in every matchup. The Clippers excel at punishing mismatches, so this is a tough one for Korkmaz to hang in.

Should Brown have rolled with him deep into crunch time? They didn't have a ton of options but almost anything was better than watching the Clippers do whatever possible to force Korkmaz onto their preferred matchup every possession.

The Ugly

• You had to know the Sixers wouldn't get through one half of inspiring basketball (at least on offense) without paying a price for it. This sentence reads like Mad Libs — Richardson left the game after colliding with the back of Burks' head, and was ruled out just before halftime with a "nose contusion" by the Sixers.

Worst fears were confirmed immediately after the game, as the team confirmed Richardson had been entered into the NBA's concussion protocol. While the Sixers obviously need Richardson back sooner rather than later with the state the team is in, they need to be careful with his health. Thankfully, they remain in L.A. for their next game, so if this is a head injury of any real severity, at least he can stay put for a couple of days.

• Before we get to the negative, let it be said that this front office inked Milton to a cheap four-year contract over the summer, and on top of another year of Furkan Korkmaz at the minimum, those are a couple of nice wins for an oft-maligned group.

But Milton's emergence brings something else into focus — Philadelphia selling off second-round picks over the years. Is every guy drafted in the second round going to turn into a legitimate contributor? Certainly not. And moving a second in one draft for multiple picks in another draft is a reasonable enough approach. But the Sixers have, across multiple regimes, sold off picks in the second round in areas where contributors were found by other teams. In the case of Milwaukee's Sterling Brown, they even sold the precise pick that a chief rival used to find a role player.

Milton has been a great story. They should be swinging for more great stories — and that's not the fault of the basketball operations team.

• I don't want to waste too much time on it because most teams get home cooking, but the officials did not give the Sixers much slack on Sunday. The Clippers got away with a lot of physicality, and Philly's inability to do the same continues to be an area of concern sans Embiid.

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