The 76ers are capable of beating low-level NBA teams like the Hawks, even without Ben Simmons.
That’s what happened with Monday night’s 129-112 victory at the Wells Fargo Center. It certainly didn’t hurt the cause that Joel Embiid torched Atlanta for a career-high 49 points on 17-for-24 shooting from the field.
Defeating the Cavaliers on Wednesday evening in Cleveland, despite the Sixers’ maddening road woes, and the Knicks on Thursday night at home also wouldn’t be a stretch.
But expecting the 36-22 Sixers to make up four games – five in the loss column – on the Celtics and jump from fifth place in the Eastern Conference to third over the final 23 games sans Simmons seems unrealistic.
As for Simmons, tests showed he suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back early in Saturday’s road loss to the Bucks. He will be evaluated in approximately two weeks.
If the Sixers are going to finish fifth in the East – the No. 4 Heat lead them by one-half game – you can make a case for Brett Brown’s team being better off sixth. That way, they’d open the best-of-seven opening round against the No. 3 Celtics.
Though they wouldn’t have homecourt advantage vs. Boston, the Sixers won the season series 3-1, splitting the two games in Beantown. Winning that series would probably result in a conference semifinal matchup with the No. 2 Raptors.
While neither series would be ideal, that’s a better scenario than facing the No. 4 Heat and NBA-leading Bucks in the first two rounds.
In the meantime, figuring out how to distribute Simmons’ team-leading 35.7 minutes is the more pressing concern on a roster with only one other true point guard in Raul Neto. Trying to determine the regular playoff rotation is no longer the top priority due to the more pressing concern.
Brown said before facing the Hawks that he planned to do it “by committee,” which is what he did.
Against the Hawks, Brown started Shake Milton at the point and also used Alec Burks and starting shooting guard Josh Richardson in that spot.
Milton has played mostly off the ball in the NBA and G-League, but ran the point at Southern Methodist. He might be the best option due to his versatility at both ends of the floor. He’s 6-foot-5 and can defend shooting guards, allowing Richardson to handle point guards such as Atlanta all-star Trae Young.
Milton, a second-year pro, was solid Monday, contributing seven points, six assists, five rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot in 26 minutes. He tied Tobias Harris with a game-high plus-minus total of +21.
“I feel comfortable on the ball. I feel comfortable off the ball,” Milton said. “I think just having a year of being around guys who are good as they are every day, it forces you to get better.”
Richardson and Burks are wings capable of initiating the offense. Unless Brown wants to re-visit Neto, count on them splitting time with Milton at the point for at least the next two weeks.
Neto started last Thursday’s overtime win over the Nets and struggled, particularly on defense. He hasn’t earned meaningful minutes in the past two games.
None of the possibilities brings nearly as much to the table as to Simmons does.
The real test without Simmons begins Sunday when the Sixers face the Clippers in the first of a four-game Western swing that includes next Tuesday’s meeting with the Lakers. They won’t have a guy capable of defending four or five positions at a high level, or running the show so well on offense.
“With 25 games left, we’ve taken a hit with Ben,” Brown said. “The challenges are ever-apparent.”
In the meantime, Brown takes a glass-half-full approach with the attitude that perhaps he can get a better idea who the backup point guard will be when Simmons returns.
“We’ve all learned that when there’s a vacuum, as there is now with Ben, something will happen,” Brown said. “I’m trying to see the world through those eyes.”
It’s not like he has a choice.
Tom Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org; @TomMoorePhilly