The West’s number one team Utah Jazz battle the East’s number one Philadelphia 76ers in a highly anticipated rematch tonight. Even though the first matchup was just two weeks ago, things will be very different from last time. Both teams should see important starters return, Joel Embiid for the 76ers and Mike Conley for the Jazz.
Assuming Tobias Harris is cleared to play (and he was reportedly close Monday), both teams will hopefully have their full starting lineups in their last tilt before the All-Star break. But I’m not here to talk about the impact Embiid and Conley will have. That’s obvious. I’m here to talk about another significant piece the 76ers will have that they didn’t have last time. Malik (Shake) Milton.
Depth has been a major weakness for the 76ers. It’s one of the reasons Sixers fans are desperate for President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey to make a move. During their three game losing streak two weeks ago (which included the Jazz), the bench was brutally outscored time after time after time. Against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Phoenix Suns and the aforementioned Jazz, the 76er’s backups got crushed by 26, 31 and 32 points respectively. Despite the starters playing quite well in all three games, they couldn’t overcome the reserve unit’s poor performances. It’s hard to pin the reason for the bench’s struggles on one man, but in my opinion the cause is clear. They didn’t have Shake Milton.
The first game of the road trip (which Milton played in and was hurt during), the 76er’s second unit actually won, outscoring their Sacramento King’s counterparts 32-21. And the 76ers won that game. Now you might say, look, it’s just four games, that could mean anything. But let’s look further. The next game after the losing streak against the Houston Rockets (still sans Shake Milton) the 76ers still lost in bench scoring 22-21. At least it was close, but the Rockets are one of the worst teams in the NBA. The second-string returned to their dismal ways against the Chicago Bulls, losing by 19. It took Embiid’s career high 50-piece for the Sixers to win.
Milton would return the next game against the Toronto Raptors, and it looked bad. The 76ers backups, even with Milton, were doubled up 35-16. But then things began to change as Milton readjusted after missing time. The next game against the same opponent, the bench score was 30-25. Still a loss, but closer against a very good team. Against the Dallas Mavericks, with a struggling Joel Embiid, the 76er’s second unit tied the Mavericks 46-46. The high scores are due to the 76ers blowing the Mavericks out early, but it’s no surprise that it came with Milton back in the lineup. In fact, Shake was a team high +17.
Against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they took another loss, but another close one, 26-22. A far cry from the absolute slaughters while Milton was out. And finally, we have Monday’s game against the Indiana Pacers. It was one of Shake’s finest in his career. He scored a game high 26 points and led the 76ers to another easy win that let the starters rest. The substitutes as a whole got their first blow out win, going 67-47 against the Pacers’ second unit.
The numbers don’t lie. Without Milton, the reserves were actively holding the team (and some wonderful performances by the starters including Ben Simmons’ career high) back. Now, the subs are holding their own, and even sometimes winning. This is vitally important, especially since coach Doc Rivers loves to run out all-bench lineups quite often. Without Shake, we see those lineups are terrible, often blowing any lead the starters may have garnered. With Shake, these lineups can do just enough. Ben Simmons has only had the luxury of playing under 30 minutes five times this year, and only three of those were because they were winning. It’s no surprise that Milton has averaged 17.6 points and four dimes in those games.
The Return of Sniper Shake?
I’ve already talked about what makes Milton so crucial to the reserves in a previous article that’s also linked above. But since returning from his injury, he’s been able to add the one thing he had been missing this season, the three-pointer. Through the first 22 games he played in, he was shooting a dismal 30.8% from downtown, which was 13% lower than his percentage last year. Since his return however, he’s shooting 39.1% from deep on 4.6 attempts per game. Much closer to his 2019-2020 numbers.
Not Just His Own Numbers
Shake Milton doesn’t only make the second-string better just because of his own numbers either. The unit plays better because he is there handling the ball and running the offense. Furkan Korkmaz was awful in that five game stretch that Milton missed. He averaged 3.2 points per game shooting 23% from the field and .07% (wow) from three. Since Milton’s been back? Korkmaz is averaging 11 points and shooting 38.9% from deep. If we throw out the two games against Toronto (he played two minutes in one game and played a majority of the starter minutes in another, and they were his worst and best performances of the five games), he’s averaging 12 points on 39.1%. Even better.
Dwight Howard has been another recipient of easier shots. In the five games without Shake, Howard scored 6 points on 50% from the field. Since Shake’s return he’s scored essentially the same points (5.8) but on 70% from the floor instead. This includes Howard’s best game in a Sixers uniform against the Mavs, including a turn-back-the-clock slam assisted by none other than Milton.
The 76ers could really use a win tonight. While they are the best in the East, they’ve been accused of playing an easy schedule, feasting on lesser teams and getting beat by the true class of the NBA. I can’t say that is absolutely wrong. While they are 11-2 against current East playoff teams (they haven’t faced the full strength Brooklyn Nets or the Milwaukee Bucks at all) they are 1-5 against the West’s playoff teams (although that Denver Nuggets loss is fraudulent). Beating the best team in the league would silence the doubters and give the 76ers huge momentum going into All-Star weekend. Shake Milton’s ability off the bench will be crucial to do just that.
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