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Shake Milton providing key backcourt boost to shorthanded Sixers

Entering Monday’s home showdown against the Knicks, the Sixers were 6-0 since Milton returned from a sprained ankle sustained during the preseason. And it’s not pure coincidence.

Sixers guard Shake Milton dribbles the basketball against the Portland Trail Blazers  on Nov. 1.
Sixers guard Shake Milton dribbles the basketball against the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 1.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

“Shake and Bake” seamlessly rolls off teammates’ tongues when talking about Shake Milton. But when the 76ers gathered in the locker room following Saturday’s win in Chicago, Joel Embiid anointed Milton with a new nickname.

“I just told him that he’s the franchise player,” Embiid said a few minutes later. “... He’s having a huge impact, whether it’s coming off the bench or starting.”

The shorthanded Sixers had gone 6-0 since Milton returned from a sprained ankle sustained during the preseason until Monday’s 103-96 loss to the New York Knicks at the Wells Fargo Center. And that impressive mark is not pure coincidence.

The fourth-year guard has been a reliable complementary offensive threat, shooting 49.1% from the floor entering Monday even while still searching for consistency in his three-pointer. He has also been an improved on-ball defender who now asks Sixers coach Doc Rivers for prime defensive assignments. And out of necessity during this stretch of six games in nine nights while his team is hit hard by health and safety protocols and injuries, Milton started back-to-back games alongside Tyrese Maxey to put two capable ballhandlers on the floor at the same time for the NBA’s most efficient offense.

“I feel like I’m getting a rhythm and getting my legs back underneath me,” Milton said. “It’s kind of weird because we don’t really have practice. So really, in the games, that’s when you really got to push yourself or test yourself and make it happen.”

Milton’s role diminished late last season, when the Sixers acquired George Hill at the trade deadline and Maxey made a leap during the playoffs. Throughout the summer, Milton worked on tightening his handle as a bigger guard to combat pressure defense. But he focused most on his three-point shot and his defense, down to the basic nuances of “old-school lane slides” and keeping his stance.

“I want to be the type of player who’s in the game when it matters most,” Milton said on media day. “To be able to do that on this team, you’ve got to be able to get stops. …

“Last year, [not playing in crunch time] was something that really ate at me. Of course, you’re on the sideline supporting your teammates, but you want to help them win. For me, I think defense is going to be the key to that.”

Milton started one preseason game over Maxey, prompting Rivers to emphasize then that they were in competition for the job. Rivers said Monday that Milton was “very close” to earning that spot before he stepped on teammate Andre Drummond’s foot during practice on Oct. 10. That kept Milton out for more than two weeks and officially elevated Maxey to that first-team role.

Since returning on Oct. 28 against the Pistons, though, Milton’s minutes have steadily and then sharply increased to 34 against Detroit and 36 against Chicago. He scored in double digits in six of his first seven games, including a 16-point outing on 7-of-13 shooting at Detroit to go with eight rebounds and five assists.

Because the Sixers installed new sets during Milton’s absence, Rivers has noticed periodic lapses in Milton’s timing and execution. Maxey added he likes the “on-ball creativity” to generate shots that Milton brings when they share the floor. That was on display against the Bulls, when he helped stifle a Chicago third-quarter run with an and-one finish en route to finishing with 13 points and a season-best six assists.

Yet Rivers was most pleased with how Milton asked to guard Chicago All-Star Zach LaVine, “was probably the best on him at forcing him right,” the coach said, and then became furious with himself when he fouled LaVine outside the three-point line in the fourth quarter.

“I love that Shake, who is really an offensive player, is getting into playing defense,” Rivers said. " … That’s something I can tell you last year he would never ask to guard someone.”

When asked last week about his role moving forward, Milton candidly responded with an “I don’t know.” That’s not just about him individually, but about the current state of a Sixers roster that added Embiid to the health and safety protocols list Monday.

When Danny Green returned Monday from a three-game absence with hamstring tightness, Milton moved back to a reserve role against the Knicks. His performance that night mirrored his team’s, missing seven of his first eight shots but making critical second-half plays as the undermanned Sixers stormed back.

His and-one finish late in the third quarter cut New York’s lead to 70-67, before a driving layup got the Sixers within 72-71 early in the final period. His baseline floater through contact reduced that deficit to 83-80 with about seven minutes to play.

Milton could have had the go-ahead assist late in the third, but Furkan Korkmaz missed the open corner three-pointer. And Milton had a costly turnover with about seven minutes to play, when his bad pass led to an RJ Barrett three-pointer that pushed the Knicks’ lead back up to 89-82.

Rivers said after Monday’s loss that he would need to play a 10-man rotation during Tuesday’s matchup against the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks. Maxey in particular is in need of a blow, after playing at least 39 minutes in each of the past three games.

That means the Sixers will need a steady dose of “Shake and Bake,” aka the man Embiid has playfully dubbed the franchise player.

“However it comes, I think I’m going to be prepared,” Milton said. “My mentality every game is to come in and bring the team energy, pick up full court, play-make on offense, guard my guy on defense and do whatever I can to help the team win.

“Whether I’m starting, whether I’m coming off the bench, I don’t think that really changes. So for myself, it’s being locked in every game and just bringing it.”