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76ers: Milton solid in win

Tom Moore
Gannett Media
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times

Shake Milton went into Saturday night having played the 14th-most minutes in the 76ers season.

So more than a few folks were surprised when the Sixers announced Milton would start the nationally televised game against LeBron James and the Lakers. One writer walked through the media room repeating the words “Shake Milton” in relative disbelief.

Filling in for injured starting shooting guard Josh Richardson, Milton was solid, contributing seven points, nine rebounds, three assists and a steal in 25 minutes during a 108-91 victory over Los Angeles.

Milton had played a total of 25 minutes in the previous 10 games, eight of which he never got off the bench.

“It felt good,” Milton said afterward. “It (stinks) to have injuries. I wish we could turn injuries off, but we always preach next man up. I just tried to step up and do my part. ... I haven’t really been part of the rotation for a while, so to be out there and kind of getting thrown into the fire (was nice).”

Milton, a second-year pro who was picked late in the second round of the 2018 draft out of SMU, and the Sixers benefited from him not trying to force anything or be something he’s not in his first NBA start.

“Very, very impressive for him to get the call like that,” said big man Al Horford. “(It was) just ‘You’re starting. You’re playing. Get ready.’ He’s very poised. He works really hard. He’s one of those guys that you see all the time working on different parts of his game and his conditioning and staying ready.”

Milton benefited from a 23-minute stint in Wednesday’s road loss to the Raptors after Richardson strained his hamstring. Milton played enough to get into somewhat of a rhythm and gain a feel for playing at this level.

While Milton deserves credit for being able to handle such a big spot vs. the Lakers, it allowed top bench scorer Furkan Korkmaz to continue in his reserve role.

Korkmaz has been the Sixers’ most pleasant surprise of 2019-20. The Sixers declined his $2 million option, only to eventually sign him to a minimum deal worth $1.6 million. Given the disappointing years Mike Scott and James Ennis III are having, the Sixers would be in trouble if not for Korkmaz’s perimeter shooting.

What Milton did Saturday ranks high on the list, too.

Milton’s outing also showed that Brett Brown’s plug-and-play approach can be effective — at least in the short term.

The Sixers were already starting rookie Matisse Thybulle (six points, five steals) in place of injured all-star starting center Joel Embiid, who tore ligaments in his left ring finger during a Jan. 6 win over the Thunder.

It helped Saturday that Tobias Harris scored a team-high 29 points, Ben Simmons had six of his 28 in the fourth quarter and Horford added nine of his 16 in the final period.

The Sixers are expected to give an Embiid update Monday after he was a full participant in last Friday’s practice. It sounds like he could be back fairly soon, barring a setback.

But even if Embiid returns, say, February 3 against the Heat in Miami, the Sixers have three games this week. They host the Warriors on Tuesday evening, then visit the Hawks on Thursday and the Celtics Saturday night.

The 30-17 Sixers have been terrific at the Wells Fargo Center, where their 21-2 record ties the NBA-leading Bucks for the league’s best home mark.

After going 4-6 in the first 10 games without Embiid, they’ve won five of the last six. Winning for an extended period of time without Embiid would be quite difficult, but Brown and the Sixers seem to be adapting pretty well to not having their leading scorer or top interior defender.

On the other hand, even when they’re at full strength, the Sixers have shown a tendency to follow an impressive victory with a forgettable loss.

For example, two days after beating Milwaukee on Christmas Day, the Sixers fell to the sub-.500 Magic in Orlando. At the beginning of the month, the Sixers downed the Northwest Division-leading Jazz before the Wizards defeated Philly by six in Washington. Embiid played in all four games.

He’s getting close to being back in the lineup, but the Sixers didn’t need him to dispatch the Lakers, who were playing the fifth and final game of their extended road trip Saturday. But they still had James and Anthony Davis, and a 20-4 record on the road.

Giving L.A. its 10th loss of the season with Milton and Thybulle starting is clearly an encouraging sign heading into a week in which they’re likely to continue in those roles.

Tom Moore: tmoore@couriertimes.com; @TomMoorePhilly