Four Sixers Playoff Thoughts: Shake Milton Stock, Small Ball, Knicks or Hawks and The Rotation
Who’s buying Shake Milton stock?
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At the risk of being overly confident, I think it’s safe to say that the Sixers are in good shape in their first round series against the Wizards. If you’re interested in the nitty gritty of that matchup and what you should look for in the series moving forward, check out our YouTube channel for a film breakdown there.
Here in this piece, I’ll be doing a bit of discussion about the future of this series, but also discussing what we’ve learned from it and how it could impact the Sixers in future rounds. I’ll also be discussing the Sixers’ potential second round foes, and pontificating on which bench players could move up or down in the rotation as things move forward. Let’s get into it.
What we’ve learned about the rotation
So far, I feel good about the prediction I made about the rotation just before this series -- that Doc Rivers will keep an 11-man rotation for the entire playoffs. That has been the case in the first two games of the Wizards series, with all of Shake Milton, George Hill, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Dwight Howard, and Tyrese Maxey seeing minutes off the bench.
Of particular note is the fact that Hill and Thybulle have led the way, getting 20 and 17 minutes per game, respectively, compared to around 10 for each of Milton, Korkmaz, and Maxey. Milton’s slide down the pecking order has been notable (more on that in a bit), and Rivers has proven true to his word with his willingness to play Maxey. At this point, I’d expect Maxey’s minutes to continue trending upward. He is simply playing better than Milton right now.
It is clear that Rivers, right now, trusts Hill more than anyone else off the bench -- and rightfully so. Hill has been his usual steady presence in the first two games and has even done a solid job defending Russell Westbrook. In the event that the rotation gets cut, Hill, Thybulle, and Howard are the three locks off the bench to get minutes.
But for now, it seems that Rivers has made minimal changes from his regular season rotation. That may change slightly as the Sixers advance to the next couple rounds, but I’m not expecting anything dramatic.
Don’t bury Shake Milton
We all (myself included) do this anytime a player goes through a funk. Earlier in this season, we all essentially assumed Maxey was out of the rotation for good after looking spooked for a few weeks in a row. And sure, you could argue Maxey has improved since the middle of the season, but we were also wrong to assume that Maxey would continue to be the worst version of himself forever. The same happened with Tobias Harris last season -- after his playoff struggles last year, we all mentally wrote him off as a horrible basketball player. And right now, the same thing is happening with Shake Milton.
Milton looks completely lost on the court right now. He is passing up open jumpers, turning the ball over too much, and all while yelling at the refs over minor grievances. My only point here is, don’t default to the assumption that Shake will continue to be the worst version of himself forever. It is possible that Rivers buries Milton to the point that he’s never allowed to play out of his funk, but if he does give him the chance to break through, he will.
I am buying the Shake stock that everyone else is selling. There has to be an end to this funk eventually, and as the playoffs move forward, the Sixers will need his shot creation in some capacity. I’m betting on him breaking through and being a meaningful playoff contributor before too long.
Knicks vs. Hawks thoughts
I have arrived at the conclusion that the Sixers should hope to play the Knicks. They would struggle against the Knicks’ defense, but I don’t see any way that the Knicks are able to be competitive offensively. Julius Randle looks to be struggling against playoff defenses, and if he’s shrinking against John Collins and company, imagine him trying to bully Joel Embiid.
Outside of Randle, the supporting cast of R.J. Barrett, Derrick Rose, and Alec Burks just doesn’t put much of a scare into me. I’d be much more terrified of Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Lou Williams and co. getting hot for a couple of games and making it a tough series. The Sixers have always struggled to defend quick guards, and Young is likely to frustrate the hell out of Sixer defenders.
The positive of playing the Hawks would be facing a lighter defense that would allow Ben Simmons to have more of an impact, but I think that benefit is outweighed by the scariness of the Hawks’ offensive firepower. The Knicks just don’t have the horses to compete against an elite playoff defense. The Sixers should be pulling for New York.
The possibility of small-ball lineups
Rivers said something interesting following Game 1. He mentioned that he doesn’t necessarily want Matisse Thybulle playing extended minutes next to Howard and Simmons -- a sentiment that many fans likely share.
Doc Rivers says he wasn't aware of how many minutes Matisse Thybulle played in Game 1 (14). He does acknowledge the Sixers don't want him sharing the floor with Ben Simmons and Dwight Howard.
— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) May 25, 2021
Of course, Rivers went on to contradict himself in Game 2, playing that trio another handful of minutes. But it got me thinking as to how this dynamic might change as the playoffs move forward.
Howard has been rock solid for most of the season, but I could easily see the Sixers ditching him in favor of small-ball lineups later in the playoffs. Against the Nets, for example, the value of having both Simmons and Thybulle on the court at the same time to defend Brooklyn’s stars is simply higher than any value Howard can provide. Plus, it’s not like Howard’s physicality is completely necessary against a front line of Blake Griffin and Jeff Green.
If Rivers truly doesn’t want to play that trio together -- which he shouldn’t -- I think that small ball lineups could become a major factor. The Simmons at center lineups have generally been a disaster for his entire career, but I wonder if playoff intensity combined with a favorable matchup could make them viable, or at least preferable to a lineup with Howard.
Simmons has always lacked the Draymond Green-like communication skills/mentality off the ball that would make him a legitimate rim protector. But if he’s able to step into that type of role for a playoff series, I do think that the Sixers would benefit from playing him at center, especially next to Brooklyn. The Sixers simply have to find ways to keep Thybulle on the court, and this could be their ticket.