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August 03, 2020

Instant observations: Sixers steal victory over Spurs with Shake Milton game-winner

The Sixers got a game-winning jumper from Shake Milton in the final 10 seconds of the ballgame, narrowly escaping with a 132-130 victory on Monday night.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Shake Milton had a terrific bounce-back performance after his howler against Indiana, a good sign for the young guard. If you're going to be trusted to run the team, you have to be able to respond to adversity and play memoryless basketball.

No better way to shed the demons of the opener than to hit a monster game-winner with time running down. The opportunity presented itself, and he didn't hesitate.

Besides the huge game-winner in the closing moments, nothing fancy out of the second-year pro on Monday night. Milton was one of the primary beneficiaries of the attention being paid to Joel Embiid, and he delivered as both a shooter and a straight-line driver. If the big guns are doing their jobs, that's about all you would really want or need Milton to do. 

Give him credit for some nice moments of individuality though — Milton hit a nice stepback jumper at one point, used a ball fake to earn free throws, and took Dejounte Murray, an All-Defense caliber guard, right to the rack on one occasion. The Spurs have a good guard group, so he can feel content about this performance.

• It was not the 41-21 game he had in the opener against the Indiana Pacers, but in many respects, this was a type of Joel Embiid game that might be more important to their title hopes. 

After blowing through single coverage in the early part of the game and putting Jakob Poetl in foul trouble, Gregg Popovich started sending doubles at him from every direction. Rather than just putting his head down and trying to fight his way through it, Embiid took the path of least resistance and controlled the game with his passing. The Sixers got a bunch of open threes from feeding the big man in the post, and that has always been the end-game for a team built around him.

The problem has largely been Embiid's awareness in those situations, though the Sixers insisted during Orlando training camp that he was coming along in this regard. It's a big deal if this is here to stay. They badly lack perimeter dynamism and need to come up with additional shot creation somehow. Nobody better than your best player to get you there.

Just using the eye test, there is a different engagement level for Embiid. He's doing some dangerous stuff, like flying out of bounds to chase loose balls, but that's connected to better attentiveness at the rim, activity on the glass, and a level of physical dominance we all know he's capable of but sometimes doesn't show up.

They've had a lot of problems early, but Embiid looks like the all-world player they need him to be. Regardless of the wonky lineups and their many issues as a group, this version of Embiid gives them a chance no matter who they're up against.

• Credit where it's due: Al Horford made a difference in a positive way on Monday night. When Brett Brown sent him in for Simmons after the latter player picked up his fourth foul, I thought it was a waste of an opportunity to go smaller around Embiid. That turned out to be wrong, and the two-big lineup did reasonably well with a normal-ish trio next to them.

With the legs to move a little better than he did during the season, Horford can find pockets of space instead of looking like he has grown roots in the hardwood. That gives him a chance to actively get involved, making touch passes and finding his hot spots as a shooter. And the difference in the hop in his step certainly translates defensively, where the Sixers have freed him up to be more aggressive against pick-and-rolls.

There are still some ugly blown layups, and Horford post-ups are where offense goes to die right now, but he looks much more like a competent basketball player than he did this past winter.

• Tobias Harris is still a work-in-progress on defense, but this was another solid effort from him on offense. I like the physical edge he's playing with, using his strength to power through guys and create separation inside the arc.

(An exception to the defense part: he had a huge defensive play/rotation in the closing moments that was the difference between a win and a loss.)

More importantly, he's making threes, which is probably his most important contribution to the team period. There's no hesitation in Harris from beyond the arc right now, and they need him to sustain that fearlessness to go deep in the playoffs.

• Joel Embiid helped Shake Milton off of the floor at least twice in the first quarter. Give peace a chance, or something.

The Bad

• Ben Simmons' defense has been the biggest disappointment of the first two games and there isn't a close second. After getting torched by T.J. Warren vs. Indiana, Simmons came out with the same lackadaisical approach in the early stages of the game, allowing DeMar DeRozan to get to his spots with very little resistance.

Throughout the season and even in their first two scrimmage games, Simmons played with an edge that set an example for the whole team. Losing that demeanor explains part of the reason why their defense has not been good enough so far (it's fair to point out defense has not been great across the board in Orlando).

That said, once he got into foul trouble, you have to live with some degree of passivity on defense. What you absolutely can't do in that position is ask him to play center, which Brett Brown did in the fourth quarter for a small stretch. It's an idea that makes no sense on paper and was as bad as you would think it might be in practice.

• The insistence on giving Josh Richardson the ball as the backup point guard still makes no sense to me. There is a mountain of evidence to suggest he's not equipped to run the offense well. He telegraphs passes, doesn't have the shake to get to the rim and score, and he's not exactly a knockdown shooter. But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln...

Here's the kicker — Richardson doesn't seem to realize these limitations, and when you put the ball in his hands more, it often ends with him losing sight of getting others involved entirely. At the end of the first half, he had one less shot attempt than Embiid and Simmons combined. That shouldn't be possible. 

This isn't the Josh Richardson show, only he doesn't seem to realize that. He goes off-script on both sides of the ball an alarming amount of the time, misunderstanding the opposing personnel on defense and dribbling into nothingness half of the time on offense. To get value out of him, it seems he needs to be put in a more defined role, not allowed to go off-script as he pleases.

Richardson has to be more aware, but the coach has to actually try to facilitate awareness with the setup. Both can be true.

(By the way, this is part of the downside of playing Simmons as a forward. They don't exactly have a lot of good guards on the team. Not that they've really used the strengths of the guys they have or had, mind you, but they've undervalued guards routinely. Hell, even Zhaire Smith, who they're trying to turn into a guard and isn't in Orlando, was a college power forward.)

• While we're on the subject of Brown, I can't quite figure out what he's trying to accomplish with the guard rotation so far. Admittedly, the options on hand are not the best, but there has to be a better way to attack the problem than dumping responsibility on Richardson and bringing Raul Neto back out of cold storage.

The Sixers are playing a wide variety of lineups and not getting value out of them. Playing an Embiid-Horford frontcourt and struggling to create a rebounding advantage against an undersized, undermanned team is embarrassing. I'm not sure what you'd expect playing a Horford-Harris-Korkmaz-Burks-Richardson lineup to try to buy time, and they got outscored 7-0 in a little over a minute-and-a-half in the second quarter.

When sound design and planning is blown up by elite execution from the other team, that's just the luck of the draw and part of why we watch sports. That's not what we've seen in Orlando so far.

If there's a silver lining, it's that these things are correctable. These lineups might not last into the playoffs, and if Robinson III gets healthy, they'll have another two-way guy to throw into the mix. But they're not being optimized by any means right now.

• You can't have your pocket picked clean in the backcourt twice in the same game and continue to play point guard. Sorry, Raul Neto, I don't make the rules I just enforce them.

No idea why Alec Burks isn't getting more time. I think he gets exposed with more minutes, too, but he has a level of dynamism, and players like Burks are having a field day in Orlando so far. 

The Ugly

• Not that I was ever a big fan of the concept, but I'm officially out on the crowd noise being dumped into the empty arena. It sounds ridiculous and inauthentic and I want to hear guys get into it at the floor level. 

If you don't want to subject a bunch of soft people and their children to trash talk, at least give me a rated-R option I can opt into instead.

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