The Philadelphia 76ers had zero bench points at halftime of Game 2, then exploded for 26 in the second half. Credit a dizzying 14-point outburst from Shake Milton for awakening the reserves, plus a patient head coach for sticking with his unexpected hero.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers revealed that Milton had been shooting in the gym at 10 p.m. the night before Game 2. He was in there playing one-on-one basketball with assistant coach Tyler Lashbrook while mentally preparing to get his number called. The 24-year-old had no idea when or if that would happen again after logging just one minute in Game 1.
“I just heard over and over again from them [his teammates], just stay ready,” Milton told reporters on Thursday. “I just tried to be prepared when my number was called and go out there and play. It felt good because it was the playoffs and we got a win.”
Milton’s big night helped the Sixers even their best-of-seven playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks at 1-1. Game 3 is scheduled for Friday night (June 11) at 7:30 p.m. Rivers plans to stick with another deep rotation in that one.
Seven bench players saw the floor on Tuesday night, headlined by 24 minutes from Matisse Thybulle plus 19 for George Hill and 14 for Milton. Rivers said they make those decisions on a game-by-game basis while adhering to what he calls the “push-pull principle.”
“The push-pull principle, meaning if you play well you keep playing,” Rivers said. “If not, there’s a guy pushing behind you who will pull you along as well. I think that’s good for us.”
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Joel Embiid, Ultimate Trump Card
It doesn’t hurt that Rivers has the ultimate “trump card” in his deck. Joel Embiid, the runner-up for NBA MVP, scored a playoff career-high 40 points in Game 2 while playing on a torn meniscus. The All-Star big man is averaging 39.5 points in 36.5 minutes in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He’s a walking double-double every night.
“You want that, the trump card, that’s what we used to call it,” Rivers said. “And so you do know that you have a guy that you can always go to. But that can be fool’s gold. The rest of the guys still have to make sure that everyone is contributing. The better the other guys play the easier it is for your trump card, let’s say, to be more dominant.”
Those “other guys” included Tobias Harris (22 points) and Seth Curry (21 points) on Tuesday, combined with lock-down defense from Ben Simmons on Hawks star Trae Young. Twitter had been ripe with complaints that Simmons only scored four points, but none of his teammates are paying attention to that. They know how valuable their All-Star point guard has been.
“He’s our go-to guy on that end, we rely on him to lock up the best players on the other team,” Milton said. “And him doing that gives everyone else energy, it gives everybody motivation. He holds himself to a standard that high, it makes everybody rise to that level. What he brings to this team, you can’t even put it into words.”
Sixers React to Simmons Missing DPOY
The Sixers were still getting over Embiid missing out on MVP when a second snub hit the starting five. Rudy Gobert was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year over Simmons. Gobert received 84 first-place votes to 15 for Simmons. The Sixers had three players finish in the Top-12: Simmons (second), Embiid (seventh), Thybulle (12th).
Simmons has stated his desire to win the award all year, claiming he deserved it more than Gobert due to his ability to guard all five positions. He wasn’t available for comment on Thursday, but there’s a good chance he’ll take it out on the Hawks on Friday. That’s what Embiid did upon learning he wasn’t the MVP. Rivers put it all in perspective by saying he believes both guys will earn those awards in the “near future.”
“What I love about both is the last couple of years neither one was mentioned in either of those categories and now they’re on the board,” Rivers said. “And with their youth and growth that we anticipate, I do think in the near future Ben will be Defensive Player of the Year and Jo will be MVP. A lot of times you have to have an MVP season the year before you become the MVP and the same thing with any of those awards.”