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Six things from the Sixers’ West coast trip

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An inordinate amount of Shake Milton incoming

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Six Things on the Sixers, where I break down clips from the Sixers’ last week of games, whether it be a common play the team is running, a certain tendency I’m noticing in an individual player or anything else that the Philly faithful deserve to know.

1. Shake Milton’s lanky left arm

This was a horrible week. The Sixers went 1-3, and even though the two losses in L.A. were completely understandable, the loss to the artists formerly known as the Golden State Warriors was a newly reached low in this very disappointing season. The team dropped down to the sixth seed, and any potential for home court advantage in the first round seems delusional at this point.

However, there was one thing to hold on to. One very, very sweet and awesome thing.

Malik Benjamin “Shake” Milton.

A guy who was told by Brett Brown that he should not expect to be in the rotation post-all star break, only to break out and dominate a nationally televised game against one of the best teams in the league.

There are so many awesome things that could be written about Shake, from his breaking the record for consecutive made threes, to the origin story of his now famous nickname.

But my personal favorite Shake quality has to be his ability to weaponize his length when finishing, specifically with his off-hand.

None of those were even close to being easy. His extension on the dunk over Pat Beverley is downright absurd, and the other two layups were over two of the league’s best defenders in Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis.

Despite only standing 6’5” in stature, Milton boasts an impressive 7’0” wingspan that allows him to take on such great defenders without any substantial fear of getting rejected. He’s smart enough to know the proper way to time his steps, followed by him extending his arms to the point where he’s almost slapping the ball off the backboard as he gets so close to the glass before releasing his shot.

In a league with a multitude of great finishers, there’s a chance that Milton is soon considered by many to be one of the very best.

2. Unfortunately, Avery Bradley put the clamps on Shake

Following the surreal high that was the Clippers’ game, his next outing against the Lakers was a brisk slap in the face. Shake Milton—our cult hero and the only other player beside Thybulle that has not at one point been hated by a faction of the fanbase—could not do to the second L.A. team what he did to the first.

Specifically, all those scooping and swerving layups Shake manufactured against the Clippers were completely nullified by the Lakers, as Avery Bradley constantly kept Milton from getting to the spot he wanted.

Milton isn’t overwhelmed nor is he just handing the ball to Bradley, but Shake doesn’t have the lateral quickness necessary to simply blow-by Bradley and punish him for staying too closely attached.

As the game progressed, it became clear that Shake was bothered by Bradley’s defensive activity.

Last week, I detailed how Josh Richardson just does not have the advanced handling skills needed to run an NBA offense, and unfortunately, it seems like that description fits Milton too. It’s the small detail that should make you appreciate Ben Simmons even more, as his absence has shed more light on this flaw in the roster.

But that in no way takes away from how awesome Milton has been. Barring some unforeseen slump, there is no logical explanation as to why he shouldn’t be the fifth starter alongside Harris, Embiid, Simmons and Richardson come playoff time. Of course, that probably means Brett Brown is going to forget that he exists and bench him for Raul Neto.

[Sigh].

3. Not yet for Norvelle

Die-hard Sixers fans have been asking for more Norvelle Pelle all year. I’m guilty of it too. I’ve texted my brother about the rookie big man an embarrassing number of times.

But maybe, just maybe, we were all wrong and Brett Brown was right. It’s a small sample size, but holy crap did Pelle look unprepared for that game against the Lakers. It’s not even about the two (admittedly hilarious) missed layups.

What I’m more concerned with his defense, which is supposedly his calling card and major edge over Kyle O’Quinn when it comes to choosing the break-in-case-of-emergency center.

Anthony Davis toyed with the over-eager big man at every opportunity and quickly got him into foul trouble.

All Davis did was simply take off a beat earlier than Pelle expected, yet this slight deviation duped him so much that he didn’t even leave the ground for a block attempt, but slowly lurched into the Brow’s body, giving him an incredibly easy layup and an incredibly blatant foul call for the ref to whistle.

That is some Dennis Smith Jr-bad level of spatial awareness. He’s not even close to Markieff Morris when the shot goes up, yet he clumsily takes another step forward to give up even more free throws.

Yes, Pelle is exciting and might be a very good backup center in the near future, but there’s still a lot of things he needs to work on for when he’s not playing against inferior athletes.

There’s a reason, despite all the rumoring and chatter among fans, that the Sixers did not release O’Quinn. He’s not good, but at least he’s not going to go full-deer-in-the-headlights mode in big games like Pelle did.

4. Some rare creative play-calling

It’s true that the Sixers are a much worse team without Simmons, Embiid and even Richardson for the time being. But are they less fun to watch? For the first three games, I wasn’t so sure, as the fully-healthy Sixers were already headache-inducing, and over the last week I’d become attached to the less-talented platoon of players (that is, until they lost to a team that started Mychal Mulder and Juan Toscano-Anderson).

In the lone win on the the trip, the offense was humming pretty well. There were even some moments where they displayed quality spacing and off-ball creativity, things that were very rare when the team was fully healthy.

This play in particular caught my eye:

Brett Brown rarely busts out these types of plays where one action flows into the next. The back screen for Shake gets Harrison Barnes a step behind Harris as it flows into a pick-and-roll with Horford. That gets Harry Giles switched on to Harris—an obvious mismatch that distracts De’Aaron Fox and forces him to hang out in the paint. He points to Bogdan Bogdanovic to get out on Shake as he sees the Thybulle pin down coming, but Thybulle reads this situation and instead screens his own defender in Bogdanovic. The ball moves quickly and finds Shake for an open three that he cashes in with ease.

Most Philadelphia possessions are the opposite of lively and creative, and are rather a stagnant mess of players running into each other late in the shot clock. Is that a coaching problem or personnel problem? It’s hard to say. All I know is that the team would be a lot better if we saw more of these kinds of plays.

5. Tobias Harris’ tendency

In a great article by Ryan Blackburn that illustrated the greatness of Nikola Jokic, he put together a list of the top ten shooting percentages when taking jump shots from five-to-nine feet away. On that list, Harris ranked fifth in the NBA with 49.3% shooting, and the only non-center he finished behind was DeMar DeRozan.

That makes sense. Harris’ go to move is to get a smaller defender switched onto him, and then elevate for a short jumper over him while inside the paint.

According to PBP stats, he’s taken approximately 294 of these short mid-range jumpers this year, compared to 272 shots at-the-rim. He does this despite the fact that he shoots a much better percentage (63.2%) on at-rim attempts compared to the short mid-rangers (49%).

My working theory is that Harris’ missed layups are so utterly embarrassing that he’s convinced himself that he’s worse at those and wants to take them less often.

The other very realistic possibility is that Harris simply lacks the burst and athleticism needed to get to the rim at will. It’s that separation in ability that makes him only a top-50 player in the league and not an all-star.

This is most certainly a nitpick. Harris has been rock-solid all season, and any animosity about his role on the team is not directed toward him but to Elton Brand, who paid him about $30 million too much.

Maybe the key to him elevating to a higher status in the league is too fix that discrepancy in percentages and frequency for his shot distribution. Only time will tell.

6. Shake be steppin’

During the past four games, Milton took 14 total free throw attempts, an acceptable amount, but nothing to write home about.

Yet, in that limited subset, something interesting kept happening. Take a look.

It’s made hard by the weird camera angle, but Shake leans very far forward on his foul shots, so much so that he almost always takes an elongated step into the paint (which in all honesty should be whistled for a lane violation, had the NBA not decided somewhere in the last five years to completely disregard all types of lane violations short of a player jumping into the key during the free-throw routine and hitting someone over the head with a two-by-four).

This next clip gives a much better view of this subtle quirk.

It’s not like Shake is a bad free throw shooter. He went 10-of-14 on the road trip and is shooting 77.6% from the charity stripe on the season.

It’s just worth mentioning that on his misses, the step is particularly noticeable, as he appears to be nervously aiming the ball and not confident that it’s going in.

I don’t want to downplay the success of Shake Milton. His spectacular emergence has been one of the few redeeming subplots of this otherwise catastrophic season.

This little abnormality on his free throws is just something to keep an eye on.