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January 14, 2021

Instant observations: Shake Milton's 31 points lead Sixers to win over Heat

The Sixers rode Shake Milton early and often on Thursday and emerged with a comfortable 125-108 victory over the shorthanded Miami Heat. With the game never in doubt in the second half, the Sixers earned plenty of rest for Joel Embiid in the second half, a welcome sight in any game for Philly.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Before we get to the individual standouts, it's worth pointing out that the Sixers rolled to a comfortable win at home without getting good performances from either of their two best players. Ben Simmons did some box score padding and Embiid had a nice moment or two, but neither guy was the driving force behind the win, which would normally tell you Philadelphia had no chance to get a win.

Take it with a grain of salt against an opponent missing most of their best players, but you'll always be thrilled to pick up a win without needing much from your top guys. Who knew that having functional guard play would be such a difference maker aside from just about everybody who watches basketball on a nightly basis?

Anyway, on to the rest.

• The Sixers got a big boost in the form of returns for Tobias Harris, Milton, and Matisse Thybulle, with each guy delivering something the Sixers had been missing over the last week of action. Okay, maybe just 2/3 delivering something, but that's not a bad deal.

Milton stepped right back into his second-unit role and masterfully controlled the offense. Almost everything flowed out of pick-and-rolls between Milton and Dwight Howard for that backup group, and he seemed to have the right response to however Miami defended it. When they played him as a scorer, the lob to Howard was on. If they got into Milton's chest, he did an excellent job of baiting fouls and getting to the line. 

Even when the first two options were cut off, Milton avoided overdribbling and recycled the possession effectively, leading to plenty of good looks for Philadelphia. Turns out it's helpful to have multiple ballhandlers on the floor at a time, especially one as smooth as Milton. 

With Rivers leaning heavily on the Milton-Howard middle pick-and-roll, I think you can expect that to be a dangerous combination down the stretch and when it matters in the playoffs, and I imagine they'll keep force-feeding it whenever possible. Rivers has had a knack for getting the most out of second-unit leaders in the past, and Milton looks right at home under his leadership.

(The only point of critique I have re: Shake is that he's going to have to learn to adjust how he plays in the pick-and-roll when he's playing with a different big, namely Embiid. That combination still looks pretty janky, and while part of the blame goes on Embiid, Milton hasn't figured out a way to get in sync with their best big, either.)

At this point, we should stop being surprised with Harris' decisiveness, though seeing him play with the same tempo and tenacity after a small layoff was a welcome sight. Half of the battle with Harris has been getting him to be a less reluctant shooter/scorer, and Rivers has coaxed it out of him. 

Possessions that used to die in Harris' hands are now at least turned into good looks, and that's something you'll take if you believe in Harris as a scorer.

Matisse Thybulle was disruptive as an off-ball defender on Thursday night, inspiring memories of his rookie season by deflecting passes and coming up with loose balls that sprung Philly for transition opportunities. He was also erratic as it gets on offense, a mess with the ball in his hands and unable to get shots to drop for most of the night until he finally got a couple to drop in the fourth.

The competition for bench minutes looks like a fierce one right now, and while it's too early to predict that he'll lose his spot, he's going to have to defend like a madman to keep a nightly spot in the rotation. That's a good thing for the team without question, and it's partly due to the next guy on our hit list.

• Tyrese Maxey was the young guy the Sixers evidently sought to protect in trade talks, and boy did he come out on Thursday night like he had something to prove. After starting the year as a fringe bench player, Doc Rivers is going to be forced to find a pretty sizable role for him even when they're at full strength.

Through the first quarter-and-a-half, Maxey and Milton were absolutely on fire, with Maxey's first miss not coming until the final minutes of the first half. His acceleration is proving to be tough for teams to deal with in a halfcourt setting, with Maxey blowing by defenders who aren't ready for him to immediately catch a pass and get downhill.

Maxey's confidence appears to be growing after this recent stint in the starting lineup, with the rookie calling his own number and letting shots fly more and more as the games go by. It has resulted in a few heat check shots that coaches and teammates might grumble about, but on the whole, I think there's much more to gain from Maxey making teams fear him at all three levels than there is to lose because he took an ill-advised shot or two.

I am starting to grow slightly concerned about how Maxey is going to make it work if he doesn't get to the line more, something that is going to be amplified by his reliance on floaters and runners on the move. That said, I don't think he's a guy who avoids contact, so perhaps those calls will simply come with time.

• It may be tough for Isaiah Joe to get minutes soon with everybody back in the mix, but credit to Philadelphia's other drafted rookie for making his case in the limited window he had. He has competed his butt off over the last week, and what he lacks in the strength to be a good defender, he is trying to make up for with guile and hard work.

He's still bouncing off of screens and having a tough time containing players in pick-and-rolls and handoffs as a result, so I don't have high expectations for him this season. But if the starting point is a kid who is willing to put in the work, you could do a lot worse. He continues to knock down shots, so he's never going to be to far from consideration.

• Dwight Howard is plenty useful as a backup center when he's not barreling into people and picking up needless offensive fouls. Discipline is the one thing they probably need to get on him about over the course of this season. 

The Bad

• Embiid did not have a whole lot going in this game, and I suppose I'm the person to blame after writing about his early case for MVP this week. Send all your hate mail to my company office, not to my home, if you please.

In all seriousness, Embiid's full game Thursday looked a lot like the first half of his monster night against Miami on Tuesday, with Embiid uninvolved in the offense as a scorer for much of the night. While he did commit to staying part of their flow as a screen setter (an important step for him this year), the urgency was just not there for him on either end.

We have seen plenty of these performances in the past, particularly last season, when playing down to the competition was Embiid and the team's M.O. It didn't much matter on Thursday, but now is not the time for Embiid to start sliding back into bad habits.

• I'm willing to give Simmons a bit of benefit of the doubt for how he has looked on defense over the past two games, considering the knee swelling issue and the fact that things are happening that I just don't expect to hold. Are guys like Kelly Olynyk going to blow by him night after night? Absolutely not. And there were a few moments of brilliance from him on that end, to be fair.

But it really puts into perspective how stagnant he has been on offense for four years when you see actual guard play around him. Maxey and Milton get to their spots and absolutely punish teams when they get there, while Simmons only has one place (the paint) where he likes to operate, and opponents have figured out over time how to make his life a lot tougher there. He can be a force on the offensive glass and an off-ball player in the right lineup/context, but his value is heavily reliant on role players making shots. 

There was a faction of fans and media members alike who presented Thursday night's game as some kind of proving ground for Simmons, fresh off of being involved in trade talks for Harden. I've been stressing this for a while, but we should really just get used to him not being that sort of guy. He doesn't have the overall scoring ability or the mentality to "respond" to perceived disrespect the way people expect stars to.

If you enjoy the triple-doubles, just hold onto that and try not to think too hard about anything else. 

The Ugly

• Mike Scott only recently rejoined the lineup after sitting out a few games with a left knee contusion, and after walking gingerly to the locker room early in the second quarter, Scott did not return, ruled out for the game with, "right knee soreness" before the first half had ended. 

Moving from an issue in one knee to a problem in the other isn't ideal, and we'll have to wait and see how serious this new knock is for Scott. Fortunately for Philadelphia, at least it happened as they're getting other players back and not desperate for anybody they can get to throw on the floor.

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