Looking at the box score for the Sixers’ 129-112 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, Joel Embiid’s career-high 49 points could justifiably cause you to overlook his 3 assists. Not only did he surpass a milestone, Embiid’s scoring performance was the driving force behind the victory. But while Embiid frequently punished the Hawks defense, and more specifically their double teams, by sheer determination to score, his passing was the cherry on top of a prolific performance.
The first play of that sequence was particularly fun to watch develop. Embiid punished a double team by passing out and it took a collective team effort to make the play possible.
As soon as Joel draws the double team, Josh Richardson recognizes an opportunity. Notice J-Rich motion to Tobias Harris and Al Horford to rotate further along the perimeter while Josh casually strolls out behind the arc. But Richardson, smelling blood in the water, isn’t planning to spot up even for a second. Kevin Huerter, who was initially guarding Richardson, assumes his teammate Trae Young can rotate onto Richardson, but Young has his own assignment to worry about in Shake Milton. Richardson times his cut perfectly and conflicts Young, Shake finds space, and the rest is on Joel to dime up Shake.
While Milton’s well-timed pump fake fooled Huerter, Huerter never actually had a chance to closeout under control because Embiid first drew Huerter back into the lane like a quarterback manipulating a free safety.
On the play below, Jo grabs himself a hockey assist after being smothered in the post by Dewayne Dedmon and De’Andre Hunter.
We’ve seen that very same play setup result in turnover plenty of times. But above we see Jo quickly identify his target and then find the touch to deliver an accurate pass under pressure. Below we can see the very moment Embiid picks out a very aware Shake Milton, who spaced out above the break to give Jo a passing lane.
A common theme in these plays is that in addition Joel Embiid being involved in each, so is Shake Milton. Milton’s quick decision-making and versatility as a guard was a perfect complement to Jo’s inside-out passing last night.
Let’s go back to the 2nd play from our very first clip.
Embiid’s pass to Shake is simply perfect. While Jeff Teague, Milton’s defender, gets turned around a bit and has to navigate traffic, he does so well and gets in pretty good position to deflect the sort of pass that needs to be dropped into that intermediate area. Jo slips it just over Teague’s reach while still giving Milton the necessary space to collect the ball and then go up with it. Considering the timing involved, it shouldn’t be lost on us that Milton made his basket cut immediately after making his entry pass to Jo.
The Sixers could be without Ben Simmons for a substantial portion of the season. That means they’ll have to find other ways to facilitate offense. If Embiid is dishing out of the post like he was against the Hawks, the Sixers could be just fine down the stretch here against a weak schedule as their lead initiator gets back to full health. It’ll certainly be a major bonus if Shake Milton continues developing into a reliable combo guard who can build chemistry with Embiid.