The Times Herald (Norristown, PA)
76ers can’t shake Milton’s contributions off bench
PHILADELPHIA >> He had said it once, hinted at it plenty and finally last week, Doc Rivers reduced his challenge to four words and a contraction.
“We don’t,” he said, “have enough guards.”
So that’s where he was before a game against the Milwaukee Bucks, half disappointed in his backcourt depth, half lamenting that James Harden was out, Matisse Thybulle and De’Anthony
Melton had been too sore to practice and Furkan Korkmaz was unavailable with an ouchy back.
The Sixers were good, but they were shallow at the point. They had some talent, but it was taking time to mesh. They needed something else, and in so many ways, Rivers was telegraphing that to the front office.
Then, after one of the most dazzling first 24 minutes in his alluring career, Tyrese Maxey drove to the basket, wrenched his left ankle, danced seven rows into the stands while wincing in pain, took a couple of three throws and hobbled into the locker room, not to return.
Then, it happened, as it had happened a few other times in
the last five years: Shake Milton showed he could be re-invented.
Down three starters — forward Tobias Harris had been out, too — and trailing by seven at the half, Rivers did what he could. That meant giving Milton 20 second-half minutes, in which he tabbed 10 of his 15 points, four of his six assists and made one turnover in a solid, 110-102 victory over a recent championship team with an 11-3 record. A night later, after Maxey was found to have broken a bone in his foot, Milton would shoot 10-for15 and score 27 in a loss to the Timberwolves.
“I thought him, De’Anthony and D-House (Danuel House) did a terrific job,” Rivers said after the Bucks game. “We really were trying to run anything without Jrue Holiday involved down the stretch. We were just trying to get him away from the ball. D-Melt and Shake kind of figured it out.”
And that’s what Shake Milton does, in so many ways: He figures it out.
A second-round, 2018 draft choice — the 54th overall pick — Milton quietly has made himself a locker room fixture.
Nor has it been easy. It required him to spend much of his rookie season on the shuttle between the NBA and the G-League. By his second season, he would surface as as an instant-offense shooter, once going for 39 in a showcase win over the Clippers on the road. That year, with Ben Simmons injured, he was a starting guard in a fourgame, first-round postseason elimination by the Celtics. With the Sixers making changes everywhere, Milton survived for two more seasons, playing most nights, tossing in some change-ofpace offense in the playoffs, but never considered a major difference-maker.
And there he was this season still owning a roster spot, even if Maxey had zipped past him on the depth chart, Harden would be relied on as the point guard and Melton had arrived in a Draft Night deal to be the leading big guard off the bench.
The third most tenured
Sixer, behind Joel Embiid and Korkmaz, just does not go away.
“Probably the funniest memory I have of him is when I was going to slap him in the bubble,” Embiid said, smiling. “So he’s come a long way. He used to tick me off. Now, he doesn’t anymore. We have a great relationship.
“We’ve been through so much, the drama, everything we have had to deal with. It’s been fun.”
It can’t hurt at that level to have an endorsement from the franchise player, but a 26-year-old backup with a history of on-court inconsistency needs more than that to survive. He needs skill.
It is well accepted that Milton — with a 7-foot wingspan — has a way of catching the eye of talent scouts, including his teammates, who regularly hint that he is among the better players behind the gates at the Camden training center. But the trait that best explains the Sixers’ commitment to him is his ability to adapt to any situation.
Need scoring? OK. Need defense? Fine. Need a good teammate? That will work. Need a special half of basketball against the Bucks while Maxey’s ankle is being smothered in ice? All right.
“That one hurt,” Milton said of the Maxey loss. “I know that kid is a warrior. If he could be out there with us, he definitely would be. But, for us, my whole five years since I’ve been out here, it’s been a next-man-up mentality. That’s been part of our culture with the Sixers. We just try to stay ready. So I just had to turn on that switch and have that mentality of being aggressive and trying to make plays for the team.”
He did, the injury-troubled Sixers won a game, and there was Milton starting the next night against the Timberwolves and almost helping to produce a dramatic upset. Brooklyn would be next, and Doc Rivers still knew
he needed guards. He was finding that he required one fewer than he might have thought.