3 observations after Sixers' bench plays pivotal role in bounce-back win


With a victory Wednesday against the Jazz in their final game before the All-Star break, the Sixers will guarantee first place in the Eastern Conference through the first half of the season. 

After a blip Saturday in an overtime loss to the Cavs, the Sixers again looked like one of the league’s better teams Monday night in a 130-114 win at Wells Fargo Center over the Pacers. They’re now 23-12 on the season, 15-3 at home. 

Shake Milton had 26 points on 9-for-14 shooting in the win, while Joel Embiid recorded 24 points on 10-for-17 shooting and 13 rebounds. Ben Simmons had 18 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals. Both stars were able to sit out the entire fourth period. 

The Sixers’ Tobias Harris (right knee contusion) and Pacers’ Jeremy Lamb (sore left knee) were sidelined. Harris had been listed as questionable throughout the day, and Sixers head coach Doc Rivers hopes he'll be available for the matchup with Utah.

“He really tried to play tonight," Rivers said. “We more made the call than him tonight. We need him and hopefully we can get him back next game.”

Here are three observations on Monday’s game: 

Sixers’ bench starts clicking 

It didn’t take long for Milton to provide the complementary offense the Sixers lacked against Cleveland as he ran the second unit with poise and decisiveness. He converted a four-point play on a 2-for-1 situation late in the first period, played through contact effectively and helped the bench extend a lead, not a normal occurrence for the Sixers over the last month. 

Two of his best plays were passes to an open Furkan Korkmaz that yielded no reward, though Korkmaz soon got into a groove and poured in 13 second-quarter points. Rivers liked the idea of Korkmaz and Milton as a playmaking bench duo heading into the season. Until Monday, though, we’d rarely seen both play well simultaneously. 

As for Milton, his mobility and off-the-dribble explosiveness don’t appear hampered by the left ankle sprain that sidelined him for five February games, though he noted last week he was still dealing with some soreness and called the rehab process “annoying and tedious.” He shook Myles Turner with a series of tight crossovers that the Sixers’ bench loved and drained an open jumper during a second-quarter stretch that was packed with highlights and grew the Sixers’ lead to 19 points. 

The Sixers’ bench outscored the Pacers’ by a 67-47 margin.

“I don’t think there was any change," Milton said. “I just think the ball was hopping; everybody was getting a feel for it. We played team basketball, everybody was moving, and that’s what Coach wants. ... Whenever that ball’s moving like that, we’re a hard team to guard.”

Mike Scott started for the fourth time this season, taking Harris’ spot, and posted 11 points on 4-for-4 shooting, four rebounds and four steals in a good showing. 

“Mike in the Clipper days, if his shot wasn’t falling he kind of just stopped doing anything," Rivers said. “And now tonight, rebounding, loose balls, running the floor. People are going to take away what you do best every once in a while. You have to do something else to help the team, and Mike does that every night."

Simmons still happy to drive (and score) 

The Pacers continued with their approach of guarding Simmons tightly far from the hoop, opening up driving opportunities for the 24-year-old. The high ball screens Rivers said he called to give Simmons a “head of steam” during the first Sixers-Pacers matchup on Jan. 31 were again a part of his playbook for that reason.

Simmons missed his first two shots but was undeterred, scoring six of the Sixers’ points during a 10-0 run after Indiana grabbed a 16-9 lead. If he hadn’t taken charge, perhaps thoughts of Saturday’s slow start and disappointing loss to Cleveland would’ve creeped into the Sixers’ minds. 

Though Simmons had four turnovers, giving him 11 over the past two games, that was the only notable negative from his performance. His consistent determination to attack the rim and find scoring chances for himself has been a very positive development over the past month. 

The Sixers are undoubtedly a greater postseason threat if opponents have to account for Simmons as an aggressive driver and post scorer who regularly exploits his physical advantages in the half court. 

He is, needless to say, tremendous in transition. 

No questions about Embiid when the spotlight’s on 

We’ve learned over the years that, when Embiid is questionable to play, how he looks during his pregame routine is not often a reliable indicator of whether he will suit up. Rivers said pregame Embiid was “very questionable” with left ankle soreness and the All-Star center didn’t work out at anywhere close to full intensity, but he was ultimately good to go. 

“Pretty sore," Embiid said of his ankle after the game. “I like to make myself available to my teammates. Even if it’s not all the way there, if there’s a chance, that’s what I want to do — especially for the rest of this season, because that No. 1 seed is very important for me and for us. We need to get that No. 1 seed. Every single game, I’ve got to be out there and play, even if I’m not 100 percent.”

Embiid converted a face-up jumper on his first shot before a Pacers double team could arrive. Neither All-Star Domantas Sabonis nor likely All-Defensive Team selection Myles Turner could dependably stop Embiid 1-on-1, meaning Indiana sent frequent double teams. Embiid was patient, letting the defense dictate his move and passing well when that was the right play. 

He was pleased with his work against help defense, as well as the fact that the Sixers attempted 35 three-pointers, making 15.

“Every single night, I get doubled and tripled," Embiid said. “Sometimes it’s from the top, sometimes it’s from the slot, sometimes it’s from the baseline. Sometimes, like Toronto, as soon as the ball is in the air they send three guys at me. I just need to see one possession of how they guard it and I just make adjustments myself.

“It goes back to what I said last game: We’ve got to take threes. And tonight we took threes and we made them. When we do that, now it becomes harder for the other team to double. If we make two threes in a row, I always like to watch the other team’s bench. They’re just asking themselves, ‘What are we doing? That’s two or three threes in a row.’ They might change it, and if you’re going to guard me 1-on-1, that’s also hard to guard. That’s the key. I think we need to continue sharing the ball and just letting it fly.”

His five assists were tied with Seth Curry for the most on the Sixers, and he didn’t turn the ball over until he shuffled his feet after catching an inbounds pass in the middle of a Pacers run to begin the third period. Turner should’ve cut the Sixers’ 17-point halftime lead to nine, missing an easy layup, but Rivers called a timeout anyway. It was a smart decision as he recognized, regardless of Turner’s miscue, that the Sixers hadn’t opened the second half sharply. 

“In the third quarter when I called a timeout," Rivers said, “I asked them, ‘Why are we changing what we’re doing?’ The first three or four possessions, the paint was crowded again, and then we got it back out. You could see Joel running down the floor like, ‘Space. Keep it wide.’”

The Sixers’ lead then ballooned again as Embiid played strong individual post defense on Sabonis and Turner and the team’s energy collectively surged. Scott made one of the hustle plays he's focused on this season, stripping Sabonis in the backcourt after a defensive rebound and laying it in.

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