Trust The Process. Trust your Doctor.
Joel “The Process” Embiid and Sixers coach Doc Rivers both believed that embattled backup Shake Milton, who’d played shakily for weeks, would contribute to the Sixers’ playoff run sooner than later.
“For some reason, I felt like he was going to be needed” on Tuesday night, Embiid said. “So before the game, I told him to get ready.”
Milton scored 14 points and hit 4-of-5 three-pointers in a 7-minute span Tuesday night. He was the No. 1 reason the Sixers pulled away from the Atlanta Hawks in their win in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal.
“It was huge for us,” said Tobias Harris, who scored 18 of his 22 points in the first half. “I’m extremely happy for him -- happy and proud at the same time.”
Harris knew that, six hours after the Sixers’ film session ended Monday, Milton returned to the practice facility to play one-on-one and shoot. He was there long past 10 p.m.
“Obviously, he’s been out of the rotation, and he’s struggled at times,” Harris said. “He’s steadily in the gym, waiting for that moment.”
It arrived, as his coach knew it would. Before Tuesday’s game, Rivers told Milton that, despite being relegated to scout-team duty, he remained in Rivers’ plans.
“This is a long run. Everyone’s gonna get a shot,” he told Milton. “Stay ready.”
Doc’s whole bench has stayed ready.
Since Matisse Thybulle started guarding Hawks point guard Trae Young more, Young -- who scored 25 points in the first half of Game 1 -- is shooting 9-for-26 (34.6%), has made just 2-of-10 three-pointers, and has scored 31 points in last three halves, all with a minus-28 rating.
“I thought Shake ... and Matisse’s defense ... saved us,” Rivers said. “We picked the right guy; bringing Shake in was huge for us.”
That’s the joy of postseason hoops ... right, Tobias?
“It really shows what the playoffs is about: You never know who’s going to be able to step up,” Harris said.
Tyrese Maxey stepped up last week, in Games 4 and 5 of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Washington Wizards, when he scored 28 points in 48 minutes.
But Tuesday, when Doc saw his bench hadn’t scored at all in the first half, and that Maxey had missed 7-of-9 shots against the Hawks in five quarters, he looked to Milton.
After all, in the 2020 playoffs, Milton started in place of the injured Ben Simmons and averaged 14.5 points, shot 47.7% from the field and hit 40% of his three-pointers. What’s more, he’d scored at least 10 points off the bench 41 times this season.
However, despite being touted as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate by Rivers in the preseason, Milton’s streaky shooting and the emergence of Maxey cut into Milton’s minutes. Before Tuesday night, he was 4-for-19 in the six 2021 playoff games.
No, Milton wasn’t the only player on the floor late in the third and early in the fourth quarter Tuesday. No, Maxey didn’t will the Sixers to wins in Games 4 and 5, and no, Thybulle wasn’t always Young’s primary defender. But the Sixers wouldn’t have even been in position to win their last three games without Maxey, a rookie; Thybulle, a second-year defensive specialist; and Milton, a G League graduate in his third season.
Next up ...
We like to use numbers to predict outcomes, but that practice diminishes the human element. That’s where a coach comes in. Rivers has gone with his gut, and thereby has used his young players brilliantly. He’d known he’d have to use them. His veterans knew it, too -- and they knew Milton’s moment would come.
“We needed it more than ever,” Harris said.
So, who’s next? Who will step up when the series resumes Friday and Monday in Atlanta? Maybe three-point specialist Furkan Korkmaz. Maybe backup bruiser Dwight Howard. Embiid, the league’s best player, doesn’t care, as long as they continue to step up.
“I want to win it all,” Embiid said. “I’m going to need them to do so.”