The beauty of back-to-back is that you don’t have much time to linger on your off nights. And after posting his worst defensive performance of the season in New Orleans on Friday, the Sixers had his second worst game in Oklahoma City on Saturday.
After winning 115-96 on New Year’s Eve, the 76ers finished their annual post-Christmas “Disney on Ice” trip with a 2-2 record. When they get home, a visit from the team that scored 127 points against the Pelicans awaits at the Wells Fargo Center on Monday.
Until then, here are some observations from the Sixers’ splits in New Orleans and Oklahoma City.
Milton in action in the shorthanded game
With Tyrese Maxey and James Harden out of the line-up on Saturday, it was no surprise that Shake Milton was given the starting role. No wonder Milton took the role and ran with it.
Milton finished with 18 points and 5 assists and got most of the job done in the first half when the Sixers built a 28-point working margin. Again, Milton hit weaker defenders for a lot of damage when he had momentum. If he sees he’s the only player in front of him and he likes the matchup, Milton usually tries to contact him by driving directly to him. And it can occur in half courts and transitions.
Oklahoma City’s game came just after Tyrese Maxey returned to the lineup in New Orleans on Friday. The Sixers are back in the backcourt again, and it remains questionable whether Milton will be able to successfully transition into a smaller role. That wasn’t the case early in the season when the Oklahoma native was on the fringe of his rotation.
Milton has proven to be very competent as a fourth guard in the extravagant but not routine role of the starter. It’s not very clear how it fits.
four minutes of the key
Harden also did not play back-to-back second halves in what the team described as injury management for a right leg strain that kept him out for a month earlier in the season.
With that in mind, the short-handed Sixers had to play a slightly funky lineup after Joel Embiid withdrew from the game: Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Danuel House Jr. and Georges Niang. That group did enough to tread water on a night when the Sixers were in relative cruise control against the young rebuilding Thunder.
The question is what Doc Rivers will do when Harden becomes available. The night before the game against New Orleans, when Rivers had a full roster, the Sixers went with units of Milton, Maxie, PJ Tucker, Niang and Harrell at the end of the first quarter. That group turned a draw score into a 10-point deficit in mere minutes (with the help of Zion Williamson’s brilliance).
There may be several reasons for playing an all-bench unit. Maximizing Harden and Embiid’s time on the floor together (+9.3 net rating with just under 1,000 possessions) is one of them. Giving someone like Milton a chance to spread their wings is another story.
But that group must also be produced. And Harden, who has experienced the entire offense in Houston, has the option to employ more offensive staggers in him and Embiid. The all-bench group is what Rivers did during the Sixers’ eight-game winning streak. This was largely the result of poor competition at home. His all-bench unit, which the Sixers used against Washington last week, reminded everyone of the dangers of trying to steal time with a reserve unit.
Sixers focus on isolation
In New Orleans, Embiid played the first three quarters right out (35 points, 13 of 18 shots) and ran out of gas in the second half (1 of 4 from the field, 2 turnovers). . And there were good elements and bad elements in his play.
Embiid has become a lone player heavy from the elbow. Here are some examples of the pros and cons of that strategy:
Thanks to Harden and Embiid, the Sixers are an isolated team. According to Synergy, they rank his second in the NBA (behind Luka Doncic and the Mavericks) in isolation frequency. But he also ranks first in efficiency, with him scoring 1.131 points per possession on these plays. That’s a great number.
The Sixers lost by double digits in New Orleans despite shooting 56% as a team. This is difficult. Part of that had to do with the team’s weak defense, especially against Williamson and his CJ McCollum. They also spun the ball over his 18th, partially leading to his 30th fast-breaking points for the Pelicans.
Harden struggled when New Orleans decided to switch the pick-and-roll to big man Jackson Hayes. If Harden isn’t playing at the same time as Embiid, switching is one of his potential concerns.
When the Sixers handle the ball, they will be hard to beat. Some of the turnovers were due to sloppy passes, but others also came from what New Orleans was doing diagrammatically.
Embiid’s historic month
In Oklahoma City, Embiid was less astute and decided to maintain relative cruise control as his teammates were on edge. Still, it was a pretty solid bottom line with 16 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists for his first triple-double of the season.
It’s worth appreciating what Embiid did in December. In 13 games, he averaged 35.4 points on his 64.4% true shooting, recording 9.9 rebounds and his 4.2 assists. It’s basketball at an incredibly high level.
The Sixers are once again getting MVP-level play from their best players. More than ever, Embiid looks like the type of player who can serve as the fulcrum of the team’s offense.It’s up to the rest of the Sixers to prove the formula works.
(Photo of Shake Milton playing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Alonzo Adams / USA Today)