Following Tyrese Maxey’s injury, the Sixers’ depleted backcourt turns to Shake Milton and De’Anthony Melton
Maxey left Friday's Sixers victory over the Milwaukee Bucks with a foot injury and will receive an MRI Saturday. Shake Milton and De'Anthony Melton manned the backcourt in the second half.
A brief holler of frustration and pain slipped out of Tyrese Maxey as he half-trudged, half-limped up the steps into the stands behind the 76ers’ basket after inadvertently stepping on Jevon Carter’s foot on a drive late in Friday’s second quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Wells Fargo Center.
About two hours later, the promising third-year guard departed the Sixers’ locker room in a walking boot with a left foot injury and will receive an MRI Saturday.
What already was a short-handed guard group playing without injured perennial All-Star James Harden is now even more depleted. Yet the Sixers cleared their first hurdle by securing a gutsy 110-102 win over the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks, with Shake Milton (season-high 15 points and six assists) and De’Anthony Melton (10 points, seven rebounds, six assists) manning the backcourt in Maxey’s absence during the second half.
The Sixers’ next task is fast-tracking those ballhandlers until their starters return, with no practice or shootaround time before Saturday’s matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“To play that much, handling the ball [at] point guard, under pressure, that was really good for us,” Rivers said following the game. " … We just have to find a way until guys get back.”
Maxey’s untimely exit spoiled his best performance in the six games without Harden, who suffered a foot tendon sprain during a Nov. 2 loss to the Washington Wizards and is expected to miss a couple more weeks. Maxey totaled 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting, five assists and four rebounds in 21 minutes, displaying a rhythm and balance between scoring and facilitating that had not always been present as the lead ballhandler.
The Sixers (8-7) also played again Friday without Furkan Korkmaz, who has been an emergency point guard but continues to deal with knee swelling that has kept him out since last Saturday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks. That’s why Rivers called the Sixers’ guard situation “limited” before Maxey’s injury, adding that his team spent a chunk of this week — when they had a rare four days between games — working on “just being able to run a set … and I’m not even joking.”
“A play broke down [during a scrimmage], and, literally, De’Anthony and Tyrese, there was complete silence,” Rivers said following Wednesday’s practice. “And I was sitting there thinking, ‘Now, how is anyone else going to know what we’re doing if our two guards aren’t saying anything?’
“Sometimes you don’t say anything because you don’t know what to say. That’s what we’re working on. We really need those two to be able to, if someone takes you out of that action, get to the second action. It’s not easy right now.”
Against the Bucks, though, Milton and Melton unleashed an attacking approach that Milton said had carried over from their chemistry established while running the second unit since training camp.
Rivers said the Sixers kept the ball away from Milwaukee defensive pest Jrue Holiday by having the ballhandler he wasn’t guarding initiate the offense. The Sixers leaned on the playmaking of All-NBA center Joel Embiid, who totaled another eight assists. They even used reserve center Montrezl Harrell for a five-minute spurt during the second half because Rivers said Harrell is “great” at running a delay action play that requires the big man to bring the ball up and execute a dribble-handoff. The Sixers did all of this without Tobias Harris, who has often played with the ball in his hands but also missed Friday’s game with hip soreness.
Milton and Melton also were involved in the Sixers’ stretch-run execution that Rivers described as “unbelievable.” With about four minutes to play, Melton jumped high in the air to snag an off-target pass from Embiid, then buried a corner three-pointer to give the Sixers a 102-99 lead. Then with less than two minutes remaining, Milton grabbed a rebound and was rewarded with a pass from Embiid for a one-handed dunk that pushed the Sixers’ advantage to 108-99.
“I just had to turn on that switch and have that mentality of being aggressive and trying to make plays for the team,” Milton said. " … That’s part of the reason why you put all the work in, just so that you are ready. Of course, it’s a little adjustment [with] game speed and going against defenders of that caliber.
“But, at the same time, it’s basketball. When the flow of the game gets going, it kind of slows down for you, and you’re able to make your right reads.”
Embiid said he expected that type of outing from longtime teammate Milton, whom the MVP contender said excels at delivering pocket passes and in playing in the pick and roll. Embiid, a basketball junkie, was also a “big fan” of Melton’s during his tenure with the Memphis Grizzlies, before the Sixers acquired him in a draft-night trade last summer.
Still, Embiid understands he can ease the transition by empowering both guards for however long Maxey and Harden are sidelined. Neither Milton nor Melton needs to fight through ball pressure, Embiid said, because “we can run anything with me at the top of the key.” Embiid mentioned a couple possessions when a turnover occurred because Melton was not expecting to get the ball back from him.
Embiid’s message to Melton: “When you come off a screen, I want you to shoot it every single time. If you feel like you’ve got a good shot, just let it fly. We’ll go from there. And if you don’t have it, just pass it to me, and then we’ll go to the second action.”
Added Melton: “I got no choice now. I’ve got to keep going.”
Rivers acknowledged that the Sixers’ roster availability might be “interesting” against the Timberwolves on Saturday, the second night of a back-to-back set. Melton has been dealing with back issues, though he said following Friday’s win that he was “hopeful” he would play the following night. Should Harden — who on Thursday called his recovery “on pace” — or Maxey suffer a setback and/or miss significant time, the Sixers do have an open roster spot.
Yet Maxey was clearly pleased with how his immediate replacements — and entire team — finished off Friday’s victory in his absence.
Before leaving the locker room, Maxey tweeted, “LETS GOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”
Description: It took almost two years but Ben Simmons will soon play at the Wells Fargo Center. This time, however, Simmons will be positioned alongside the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 22 when they face the Sixers. The Inquirer’s Gina Mizell and Keith Pompey will broadcast live from the marquee game, discussing Simmons’ return and the Sixers’ injury issues.