The Sixers 118-102 Game 2 win over the Hawks was marked by familiar storylines and an unlikely hero. Despite spending the majority of the game building leads with Joel Embiid on the floor, each and every time the big fella left the court the Sixers lead dwindled fast—a far too common tale for this team.
Fortunately, Shake Milton picked as good a time as any to be the unlikely hero that this group needed. Checking in for the first time with 2:44 left in the third on the heels of Atlanta taking their first lead of the game, the Sixers bench had scored 0 points up until that point, and Milton delivered a smooth 14 on 5/8 shooting (4/5 from deep) in less than 15 minutes of run to close out the win.
Last week Doc Rivers remarked that, “Shake is going to help us win several games on this journey, I guarantee that,” and that took just six days to come to fruition.
After emerging at the end of the 2020 season as a legitimate weapon for this Sixers offense—at times being more reliable than Tobias—Milton has had a shaky 2021 campaign to say the least. His three-point percentage dropped eight whole points from 43% to 35%, and his offensive efficiency generally dipped across the board. While he wasn’t all bad this season, he struggled to find any real stretch of consistency, and after starting the playoffs 4/19 shooting from the field I had figured this was a lost year for him.
That script may have flipped last night, as Shake is the new hot hand on Doc’s bench, and he’ll be given another opportunity to cement that in Game 3. While it’s just one strong game, it’s good to see that he still has some juice left for this season, and if he can parlay this performance into a strong stretch of play to close out the year then the Sixers have another round of ammunition to spend offensively.
Dynamic offensive skillsets rule the day in the playoffs
Furkan Korkmaz and Tyrese Maxey—two players who have seemingly surpassed Shake in the rotation—both provide obvious offensive skillsets: shooting from Kork, slashing from Maxey. Though Milton is somewhat less prolific in each of those regards, he provides both of those skills, and that sort of versatility on offense is vital to half-court success in the playoffs. While the team is obviously comfortable playing Furkan and Maxey for the time being, Shake’s skillset presents much higher upside.
Not only is Shake ultimately the better option off the bench than those two when he’s on, but the value of his dynamic offensive skillset in the playoffs when compared to a traditional 3-and-D player like Danny Green is also worth highlighting. While Green is a stronger team defender than Milton, if he continues to be targeted in on-ball matchups by Atlanta than his value on that end of the floor isn’t all that much higher than Shake’s. When you compare the two offensively, Green’s one-dimensional, catch-and-shoot skillset has limitations that are historically exploited in the playoffs, and we’ve seen that be the case in this series.
A few months back I wrote a piece in which I quoted Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer, who once wrote:
“Elite teams need offensive threats at every position. The playoffs have shown that it’s too easy to game-plan pure 3-and-D players out of a series . . . There’s an opportunity cost to starting a player who doesn’t threaten a defense [off the dribble] because it creates a spot in the lineup for the opponent to hide a weaker defender.”
We‘ve seen that bare out against the Hawks, who have wisely chosen to hide Trae Young—one of the worst defenders in basketball—on the undynamic Green (and of course on Thybulle when he’s in the game). While the Sixers have somewhat attempted to work those guys into the offense more as a means of attacking Trae, those possessions will never create the same schematic advantage as they otherwise would with five dynamic offensive skillsets on the floor at once.
If it’s not already clear where this is going—Atlanta can’t hide Young on Milton. If the Sixers run out a lineup with Embiid, Tobias, Ben, Curry, and Shake, they can effectively cancel out Trae’s offensive impact by targeting him on defense. This is the only five-man lineup that Doc could use to create that sort of natural advantage.
To further quote Tjarks:
“The importance of every player on the floor magnifies as the level of competition increases . . . [In order] to stay on the floor against the best, you have to be able to put the ball on the floor against the best.”
I’ll argue in defense of Danny Green as much as anybody, but this is where the value of Shake’s dynamic offensive skillset separates itself from what Green and everyone coming off the bench can provide—slashing, finishing, playmaking in addition to shooting the ball. Imagine that.
It’s important to note that while we’re currently discussing this in the context of Trae Young and Atlanta, this idea has increased importance in a future series with the Nets. Making Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant work on the defensive end of the floor will be just as vital to slowing them down as pushing the right buttons on defense, and if Danny Green is already becoming less effective on that end of the floor against a team like Atlanta then that’ll only be amplified against Brooklyn. Inserting a more dynamic offensive skillset in his place is an option I didn’t think the Sixers had just a few days ago, but the emergence of Shake Milton would give them that sort of flexibility.
Heading into the season Milton was being described as a Sixth Man of the Year contender, and the sort of weapon that could take pressure off the Sixers big three when they weren’t on the floor. While he failed to fulfill that role for much of the year, he delivered on that front last night, and his presence could potentially take a huge load off Embiid, Ben, and Tobias’ shoulders moving forward in these playoffs.