The Sixers (8-7) hosted the Minnesota Timberwolves (7-8) on Saturday night. Philadelphia wanted to push its winning streak to four games. Minnesota intended to win its third game in a row. The thinned Sixers nearly pulled off a 20-point comeback win, but ultimately succumbed, 112-109.
Before we get to the game, some context is due.
The Timberwolves were without Luka Garza, who is on a Two-Way G-League assignment with Minnesota’s affiliate. Wendell Moore Jr. and Josh Minott are on G-League assignments, as well, and were unavailable.
Chris Finch started D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert.
The Sixers were without James Harden, who is recovering from a strained tendon in his right foot. Tyrese Maxey will be out for the next three to four weeks with a small fracture in his left foot, according to a Sixers official. He suffered the injury in the first half of Friday’s victory over the Bucks. Maxey will be reevaluated in approximately two weeks and updates will be provided as appropriate.
Tobias Harris has a sore left hip and was unavailable.
Furkan Korkmaz missed another game with left knee effusion. Jaden Springer was out with a strained right quad.
Michael Foster Jr. is on a Two-Way G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr., PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers are going to need more quick-trigger three-point shooting while both Harden and Maxey are out, and Milton was to the task early. He knocked one down from the left wing shooting off the catch on an Embiid swing pass, and then cashed in on another look when Embiid rifled a short pass to him behind a screen on the right wing. Milton had hit only two triples all season coming into this game, so the 2-for-2 start was a breath of fresh air as the Sixers figure out how to adjust on offense with their powerful backcourt down.
Not that they had much of a choice given the degree to which they were shorthanded, but the Sixers paid no mind to Gobert’s defensive reputation, making a point to feed Embiid early and often. Whether it was Delay action or his sweet spot at the nail, extending to the left side of the floor, Embiid got all of his typical touches against the multi-time Defensive Player of the Year winner. And he didn’t shy away from challenging Gobert when he had him on an island. Embiid charged two fouls to Gobert in the opening quarter, forcing Minnesota to put their defensive anchor on the bench and, thus, open driving lanes for Philadelphia’s offense.
Embiid wisely acknowledged that he wouldn’t be able to carry the offense entirely on his own, balancing playmaking with establishing his own dominance. I thought the big guy did a better than adequate job of finding cutters, quarterbacking passes to teammates darting across the interior. But by the same token, he didn’t become overly predictable. Embiid mixed in passes to shooters, making a point to move the ball from side to side instead of telegraphing passes from the outside to the inside. He collected four assists before intermission.
The ball movement inspired Embiid’s teammates, who bought into sharing the rock and kept it moving from side to side to create open looks for each other. It’s no secret the Sixers are without a wealth of shot creation in their healthiest form. Without Harden and Maxey, the individualized shot creation is teetering towards non-existent. They showed synergy in their cross-court ball movement, recognizing that they didn’t need to be skilled in provisioning shots for each other to generate open shots. They just needed to pull Minnesota out of its defensive positioning, and they did that by keeping the ball active.
Paul Reed had the play of his career to end the third quarter. Went the full length of the floor one-on-one in transition, took a dribble between his legs, lost his balance, and finished a layup to beat the buzzer. Didn’t have any impact on the outcome of the game. But, it made for a good laugh on press row.
With every passing game, Georges Niang is growing more and more comfortable attacking close-outs. He had a pair of and-1s in the first half, absorbing contact on drives and kissing the ball off the backboard to earn old-fashioned three-point plays. He’s not doing something particularly special. It’s moreso that he’s leveraging his shooting prowess to get defenders off balance, and then using those exposed creases to get to the rim. I don’t know if he’ll have the speed or craftiness to do it against elite defenses, but the less of a one-trick pony he can be, the better.
The Sixers narrowly avoided a catastrophic injury when Niang fell into Embiid’s leg in the fourth quarter, causing the big man to roll his ankle. Embiid stayed down for a few moments and then walked back to the bench very gingerly. But, he stayed in the game. It was a commendable effort to say the least, the big fella clearly laboring through pain as he tried to stay active on the court. Embiid even sacrificed his body to get on the floor for a loose ball. He then followed that with a clutch triple over Gobert on the same possession to bring the Sixers within three points.
It was certainly an admirable effort by the entire team to fight back and give themselves a chance to win this game. The officials swallowed their whistles, and there were some defensive activity from both teams as the game drew closer to its final buzzer. The Sixers took advantage of some really stagnant Minnesota offense, the Wolves completely unable to figure out what to do against Philadelphia’s zone defense. Philadelphia challenged the Wolves to make long threes, Towns and Edwards the ones answering the dare with a handful of misses to keep the Sixers alive.
I thought the lack of force with which Minnesota’s bigs played early in the game had the reverse effect on officiating. Towns, Gobert, and various other Wolves missed a bunch of shots at the rim early in the first quarter. As most players do when they miss up close, the Timberwolves instinctively barked at the officials for not making calls. But, it wasn’t as if they were trying to murder the rim when they attacked. Minnesota tossed up their fair share of flimsy layups, shots that had little chance of going in to begin with unless you’re a crafty guard. Rather than refusing to bail out the lack of force, the judges opted to go ticky-tacky.
Now look, if you establish your whistle early in the game, no problem. Just be consistent. But, I thought the early silent whistles encouraged the Sixers to defend with an extra degree of physicality. And then when the whistles became more liberal, the Sixers struggled to get stops. The only thing Philadelphia could do was adapt, and they slowly did. But, not knowing how much physicality can be applied on defense is a whole new challenge on top of being significantly shorthanded. And to be clear, Philadelphia was plus-10 on free throw attempts heading into the fourth quarter. The soft calls eventually trickled over to Philadelphia’s favor. But, it was an inconsistent whistle for most of the night, and both teams were rightfully displeased with the rulings throughout the game.
The talent imbalance eventually rose to the top as the first half wore on, Minnesota turning an early deficit into a double-digit lead just by being more skilled. What really hurt the Sixers was the blown rotations in the last few minutes of the second quarters and miscues that led to live-ball turnovers. Can’t leave Edwards or Towns open for threes on blown defensive rotations. Can’t give Minnesota chances to charge down the floor in 3-on-2s or 2-on-1s. That’s how a manageable deficit balloons to a 20-point hole in the first half.
The Sixers really have to work on Tucker’s screen-setting. He’s absolutely killing them with the offensive fouls on moving screens. Actually, make that the whole team. They all need to learn how to set themselves before screening. Some of it is probably a result of being without your two most ball-dominant guards. Some of these players being tasked with ball-handling don’t have a lot of in-game repetitions navigating screens, so the timing between they’re using the screen and the screen being set is off. That can easily result in offensive fouls. But, they have to clean it up.
Melton had a chance to give the Sixers an improbable lead in the final ten seconds of the game, but he smoked a transition layup after taking some contact with Edwards. Niang followed the miss up, but couldn’t get the tip-in to go, and the ball went the other way. Brutal way to lose a game.
The Sixers (8-8) will host the Brooklyn Nets (7-9) on Tuesday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on TNT.