Publicly, the 76ers will tell you that the real Shake Milton is the guy who showed up to the Wells Fargo Center on Monday night. He’s the guy who caught Doc Rivers’ eye in a game against the Clippers last season. He’s the guy with the smooth stroke and the effortless body control and the confidence to deploy both regularly. He’s the guy who, in a 130-114 blowout of the Pacers, was every bit the catalyst his first name suggests: 26 points, 9-for-14 from the field, 3-for-5 from three.
What the Sixers think privately is something that will likely be revealed before the end of the month. There are a lot of different avenues that they can explore before the March 25 trade deadline, and not all of them involve a direct injection of offensive firepower for the bench. But most of them do, and games such as Monday’s are why. Put simply, there haven’t been enough of them.
Heading into the night, the Sixers ranked 28th in the NBA in bench scoring, a mark that really needs no other comment except to point out how heavily it contributed to the Sixers’ 4-5 mark in their nine games leading up to Monday night’s win. The offensive ineptitude has not been all Milton’s fault — he missed five of those games, including three of the losses — but his performance against the Pacers was a stirring reminder of how different the Sixers look when they have a legitimate bench scorer.
They look even better when they have two, and that’s what Milton and Furkan Korkmaz gave them against the Pacers. The duo combined for 45 points and nine three-pointers on a bench that scored more than half of the Sixers’ points.
“It’s what we need,” Rivers said after the win. “We’re still working with that group, trying to figure out what we can run that fits us the best. … When those two play well off our bench, we’re pretty tough.”
For both Milton and Korkmaz, performance is synonymous with their ability to connect from downtown. The formula isn’t complicated. In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers have two stars who draw defenders into the same real estate. Keeping them off the scoreboard means keeping as many defenders as possible between them and the rim.
It’s a reality that was on display throughout Monday night’s win. In the second quarter, the Sixers drained six threes in outscoring the Pacers by 39-23 to take a 72-55 lead into the locker room. Korkmaz and Milton combined for five of them.
The third quarter brought a similar story. Late in the period, Embiid passed out of a double team to an open Mike Scott, who buried a three to give the Sixers a 92-63 lead. A few possessions later, Simmons drew a crowd on a drive and kicked out to a wide-open Scott for another three.
“You’ve got Joel out there and he’s drawing double teams every time because nobody can stay in front of him,” Milton said. “For us, it’s just making the right reads once he kicks it to us. If you have a shot, take it. If not, move the ball and just keep the energy going.”
More nights like this, and Daryl Morey’s trade-deadline decision-making will get a little less desperate. While the Sixers are expected to make a run at Raptors star Kyle Lowry should Toronto make him available, a star of his caliber might be the only thing that can make up for the lack of production they’ve gotten from their bench in its current form.
As of Monday, the Sixers had exactly one player on the bench who was shooting anywhere close to league average from three-point range. That player was Isaiah Joe, the rookie second-round draft pick who is barely in the rotation. Korkmaz was shooting .323; Milton, .311; Matisse Thybulle, .274; Tyrese Maxey, .278; and Scott, .333. League average is .368.
That’s not favorable math, especially when you consider that the Sixers are 13-1 in games in which they connect on at least 36.8% of their threes, and 10-11 otherwise. Correlation doesn’t always equal causation, but this isn’t one of those cases. Surround Simmons and Embiid with elite shooting, and good things happen.
“I loved how we spaced the floor,” Rivers said. “Tonight, we spaced the floor, we got to the paint, we made passes to each other.”
Thanks to a patty-cake schedule and a steady rotation of player absences — Tobias Harris is the latest starter sidelined, though he is expected back from a knee injury before long — the Sixers are still very much a mystery despite a best-in-conference record that improved to 23-12 with Monday’s win. The starters have been excellent: No five-man lineup in the NBA has outscored opponents by more points than the Sixers starters’ margin of +125. Their Net Rating is the best of any Eastern Conference lineup that has played at least 100 minutes together. The big difference between this year and last year is that, this year, they are surrounding Embiid and Simmons with three shooters who are hitting at least 38% of their shots from deep.
But the Nets and the Heat are rounding into form, and it is not at all settled that the Sixers will finish the season in their realm. They’ve got a lot to figure out, and a little time to do it. If guys such as Milton want to be a critical part of the solution, they need to keep answering the bell the way they did against the Pacers.