The Philadelphia 76ers (10-9) hosted the Minnesota Timberwolves (9-10) on Saturday night. Both teams were looking to right their wrongs from losses in their respective previous games. Terrible execution down the stretch doomed the Sixers to a 121-120 defeat in double overtime, wasting a masterful performance from Joel Embiid.
Before we get to what I saw, some pregame notes are due.
Patrick Beverley was unavailable for the Timberwolves as he nurses a strained left adductor. McKinley Wright IV (Two-Way) was on assignment with Minnesota’s G-League affiliate and was away from the team.
Chris Finch started D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Taurean Prince, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Karl Anthony-Towns.
The Sixers were without Shake Milton, who is on the mend from a sore left groin. Jaden Springer, as well as Two-Way signees Aaron Henry and Grant Riller, were unavailable for Philadelphia.
After a 9-game absence under the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol, Joel Embiid returned to the lineup. Tobias Harris returned after missing two games with a sore left hip, as well.
Ben Simmons, who is still mentally unprepared to play, was out.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers had trouble minimizing dribble penetration in the middle of the lane in the first few minutes of the game. Philadelphia’s communication against Minnesota’s drag actions enabled Timberwolves to dart to the rim. Beyond that, heavy contests on the perimeter allowed D’Angelo Russell to knife into the lane to generate offense for his team. There was also a possession before the first timeout in which Anthony Edwards cut off-ball for a thunderous dunk to put Minnesota up 9. The initial attacks weren’t necessarily problematic. The damage came when the Wolves actively sought opportunities to make extra passes. The extra passes off of dribble penetration took Philadelphia out of their defensive positioning. As a result, the extra sharing yielded Minnesota a number of high-quality looks both from the perimeter and at the rim.
Joel Embiid asserted his presence as a foul-hunter early in his return to play. On his first few touches of the game, Embiid was deferring physical work in the paint and favoring outside jumpers. That’s not outside of his norm at all this season. Before the health and safety protocol stint, Embiid was jacking jumpers as if they were going out of style. Just listening to his postgame comments, that favor towards jumpers might have something to do with his feel for the ball. The league changed the brand of basketballs over the offseason. And a rampant trend of established stars struggling to shoot the ball efficiently ensued during the first few weeks of the season. Seeing as Embiid’s first few weeks were disrupted, it’s natural to wonder if he’ll persist with filling up on shots from the outside.
For the record, that’s something that Embiid has done for the majority of his career. He feels as though he has the properly developed tools to rely on his outside shot. As such, he’s never been the bruiser down low that some old-schoolers would like him to be. As a big who has struggled with leg and back injuries — and is an above-average perimeter shooter — that rationale is sensible even if not always efficient. So, this trend of relying heavily on jumpers is perhaps a bit higher volume, if not nothing new. It’s not something that is going to change too dramatically, especially if it’s going to minimize Embiid’s risk of injury.
The Sixers did very little to counter Minnesota’s assault on the rim in the first half. The Wolves did more than just just punch them in the mouth — Philly was outscored 34-6 in the paint before intermission. But the Sixers briefly found some offensive rhythm in the second quarter. That’s what kept them in the game leading up to halftime. That rhythm came off of ball swings around the perimeter. The movement — along with the occasional shot fake sprinkled in — kept the Wolves off balance and generated some open looks for Philly.
The Sixers made slight inroads in the second frame, but couldn’t recover control for multiple reasons. First, their shots simply weren’t falling. Minnesota’s defense has improved tremendously from last season (credit veteran guard Pat Beverley for helping change the culture on that front). But, the Sixers were getting a lot of the same shots they’ve been getting all season. The difference on Saturday was that they weren’t falling — not just for one guy, but for most of the team. The Wolves were getting right into their assigned matchup’s face and making them uncomfortable. They were also feasting on Philly’s long passes. Those deflections got the Wolves into transition and afforded them easy scores.
Part of the problem on offense was that the Wolves had an intelligent plan for thwarting Tyrese Maxey. Minnesota trapped the guard on ball screens, making it impossible for him to turn the corner on them and get downhill. That knack for getting downhill isn’t something that teams have been able to limit this season. That the Wolves were able to take that away seemed to stun Philly’s offense. While the Sixers got many of the shots they wanted, they all looked a touch uncomfortable and unsure out there together. But, you get 48 minutes. Have to adapt.
Minnesota’s length and athleticism irritated the Sixers at both ends. Even on strong defensive stands, the Wolves were able to physical their ways into scores. That length and athleticism made it difficult for the likes of Seth Curry, Danny Green, and Tobias Harris to consistently get open. Even when they got open from time to time, the Timberwolves closed the gaps quickly and manipulated the Sixers into rushing shots.
The Sixers made significant progress with two adjustments in the third quarter. On the defensive end, they started denying backdoor passes to cutting Timberwolves after they passed the rock off to Towns. Philly also tightened up its close-outs on shooters. With better attention to cutters running backdoor and controlled contests on shooters, the Sixers finally saw some success keeping Minnesota out of the paint. The Wolves weren’t getting the shots from which they benefitted in the first half, and the Sixers were accumulating stops.
The magnitude of those stops was compounded by the Sixers making shots. The offensive success originated from them rewiring their offense early in the third quarter. Instead of over-dribbling and not advancing the ball past the perimeter, they decided to play through their franchise player. Minnesota refused to allow Embiid to finish a possession in single coverage. Every time he caught the ball and made a move that remotely resembled an attempt at scoring, the Wolves rushed additional defenders his way. Having finally remember their hub for generating open looks, the Sixers were benefitting from great looks at rhythm jumpers. What was a 20-point deficit early in the third quarter shrunk to a 2-point difference heading into the fourth quarter.
Rivers opened the final frame with a lineup featuring Andre Drummond and Furkan Korkmaz. In the first 2 minutes of the quarter, Drummond committed an offensive foul on an off-ball screen and got out-hustled for a pair of offensive boards (one of which resulted in a score). Korkmaz, on the other hand, failed to account for Russell on a screen and failed to offer a close-out, allowing him to cash in on an uncontested triple.
Players are going to make mistakes — that’s fine. But, those were just three examples of low-effort plays that hurt the Sixers in a high-leverage situation. I might have a longer leash for a guy like Isaiah Joe in those circumstances because he’s going to have growing pains as he learns through those situations anyway. But, you can’t be so understanding when your veterans are doing that.
Now there might be contexts that matter in this particular game. Rivers just got Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Embiid back from injuries. So, perhaps he didn’t want to over-extend them and risk being short-handed for another stretch. But, Rivers is also known to be quite lenient with his veterans. Early in the fourth quarter, that trust in his more established players hurt his team more than it helped them.
While we’re on the topic of coaching in the fourth quarter, Philadelphia’s offense mostly stunk in the final frame. It mostly consisted of Embiid trying to direct traffic to the far side of the court so that he could kick to the weak side if Minnesota double-teamed. If not that, the Sixers were pounding the air out of the ball with isolations. And Rivers did nothing to organize the style of play on that end of the floor. The Sixers had many opportunities to take control down the stretch. But, that lack of structure on offense hindered their ability to capitalize on their possessions. Instead, they had to will themselves into a tight game and then rely on defense to keep the affair tied heading into overtime.
The Sixers, again, had numerous opportunities to take control of the game with Karl-Anthony Towns fouling out in the fourth quarter. But, they just couldn’t seize their opportunities. Tobias Harris was a significant factor in the Sixers failing to close the door. He missed a number of shots in the extra session, and attacked the rim without the requisite strength to finish through contact. There were numerous relatively easy looks at the rim that he wasn’t able to complete because he lost the ball going up or couldn’t kiss the glass appropriately under duress.
Even with Towns gone, the Wolves fought and fought. The Sixers took far too long to strategize against D’Angelo Russell, specifically, when he assumed Towns’ role. But even when they finally did, Russell made some incredibly difficult shots to keep Minnesota alive.
With Maxey at the free throw line and the Sixers down 2 with just seconds remaining on the clock, Rivers made a wise adjustment. He put Drummond in the game with the Sixers looking for an offensive rebound. An already chaotic game was far from over, as Drummond tipped the perfectly missed free throw into the basket to tie the game. That quick coaching gave the Sixers another chance to steal a victory on Saturday night.
Thybulle made some of his trademark defensive plays in this game. But, Russell had him under water in overtime. Whether it was navigating screens, creating space with step-backs, or selling fakes, Russell had little issue going one-on-one with Thybulle. Great defense often wins out against B-level players, but you won’t win all of those possessions!
The Sixers’ willingness to play the clock game instead of executing down the stretch wasted a wonderful Embiid game. The big man scored 42 points in 45 minutes, and converted some extremely difficult shots as the game hung in the balance. As passive as he was against physicality early in the game, he got to the line for 15 free throws on Saturday. But, the Sixers let their collective guard down in the final minute of double overtime. A fast break layup off of a Maxey turnover put Minnesota in front for good.
The final few sequences of the game were microcosmic of the game in its totality. The Sixers stepped it up a notch when they realized things were getting out of hands. But, they shot themselves in the foot multiple times on Saturday. And when you sleep through an entire half on the defensive end, and you don’t treat every offensive possession with care, you lose winnable games.
The Sixers (10-10) will host the Orlando Magic (4-16) on Monday. Tip-of is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.