The Sixers (42-22) visited the Minnesota Timberwolves (34-32) on Tuesday. Philadelphia took aim at its third consecutive win. Minnesota wanted to extend its winning streak to four games. Joel Embiid scored 39 points through three quarters as the Sixers dismantled the Timberwolves, 117-94.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of James Harden, who has a sore left foot.
Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way assignments with the Blue Coats and were out.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The Timberwolves were without the services of Karl-Anthony Towns, who has a strained right calf.
Jaylen Nowell was out with left knee tendinopathy.
Chris Finch started Mike Conley, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Kyle Anderson, and Rudy Gobert.
If you were expecting the same offensive artistry without Harden available, you missed some playmaking. But, Embiid was so good, it didn’t matter. Philadelphia still put up a respectable 24 points and only trailed by three after the first quarter. But, you could feel some shakiness to the offensive execution. Never mind the obvious, Harden not being there takes away a force of leverage for everyone on the court. There was no bending every decision the Timberwolves made on defense to create an open look for one of the four other guys on the court. That, by itself, made the offense a bit bumpy. But, Philadelphia largely survived on the backs of Joel Embiid and simplifying everything to one core objective.
First, Embiid was pretty much automatic from his sweet spots around 14 feet out. He jab-stepped Gobert into taking a step backwards before sinking a midrange jumper in his eye. A couple more midrange makes let everyone know it was going to be that type of night for no. 21. He didn’t just live outside the paint, Embiid attacking a close-out hard for a bucket inside early in the game.
When Philadelphia did finally string together some stops and compound the impact with scores on their own end, it was Embiid who mostly led the way. Gobert got the better of the big fella a few times at the rim. But, Embiid toyed with Minnesota’s blockbuster trade acquisition in the midrange again, lacing a couple faders to expand Philadelphia’s sudden lead. Embiid capped a 17-point first half with a step-back three in isolation over Gobert’s contest to give the Sixers a 15-point lead.
Philadelphia’s superstar saved his best for the third quarter. Embiid hung behind pick-and-rolls with Maxey, receiving looping flea-flicker passes from the young guard as Gobert and Edwards chased him to the rim. They left Embiid naked open at the top of the arc for a pair of threes, and he made the Timberwolves pay. There were two particular buckets in the third quarter that let everyone know that it was a wrap. First, Embiid obliged a late double-team from the baseline side by drilling a jumper a few steps outside the left block with both defenders converging.
Embiid toasted Gobert so thoroughly that the Timberwolves relegated him to guarding Tucker. The guy they traded five first-round picks and a 2022 draft selection who will likely make the All-Rookie first team for. Sent away to guard a guy averaging less than four points per game this season. That was the level of humiliation Embiid served in this game.
Even when it was Naz Reid’s turn, Embiid continued his rampage. But, he changed his style to better fit the matchup. Reid’s size offers a stark contrast to Gobert’s defensive qualities. No matter, Embiid bullied him inside. The second play that let everyone that Embiid was on one came when he used his elite first step on a nasty reverse pivot move to get the hoop and harm:
unfair tbh (he's up to 36 btw.) 📈 pic.twitter.com/U0LHUku9u3— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 8, 2023
Embiid didn’t just sell out on defense to save energy for his offensive explosion. If he could get there without leaving the back side of the floor vulnerable, Embiid came over from the weak side of the paint to swat feeble shots away. Or, if he was already attached to the driver, he suffocated them, packing already low-quality shots into the seats surrounding the court. But as is often the case, blocking shots doesn’t quantify just how good Embiid was on defense.
He stayed vertical on contests all night long, leaving it to the Timberwolves to lose control or get scared while in the air and botch their own shots. You could see Embiid’s presence around the paint actively change Minnesota’s decision-making on the perimeter. As the likes of Edwards, Anderson, or another white jersey started to build momentum towards a downhill attack, they would suddenly audible out of the decision when Embiid stepped into their driving lanes.
Getting back to the second theme, the other thing that Philadelphia did to create separation was simplify the non-Embiid offense. Simply put, they didn’t let Gobert’s prowess as a defender scare them at all. Maxey set the tone, turning on the jets to dust the former Defensive Player of the Year for buckets at the rim. Whether Embiid got the touch or not, the Sixers started their offense higher on the floor. They didn’t want to make things easy for Gobert, allowing him to set up shop around the rim. Even without Harden available, the Sixers went right to the pick-and-roll because it forced Gobert to guard in space.
Maxey totally destroyed Minnesota’s drop coverage, changing speeds rapidly to get Gobert off balance in space and beating him to the basket. The more the ball is in his hands, the more confident Maxey is. He didn’t get to the rim every single time he wanted to in this game. But, that was fine. It didn’t perturb him. No. 0 stayed ultra aggressive, instead getting defenders on his back hip as he drove and forcing whistles. He didn’t have to get all the way inside to get his calls, either. Floaters, crafty attempts fading away from the basket, Maxey got the benefit of the doubt. At his size, he can get away with exaggerating contact a bit. The mandate is to stay aggressive and lean into physicality. Maxey totally changes the Sixers’ trajectory when he’s in that mindset.
Perhaps the most obvious sign that Maxey is finding himself now that he’s back in the starting lineup — he’s delivering gut-punch shots from deep. He stuck four triples in this game, and three of them were back-breakers. Maxey laced a deep one off of a drive-and-kick to beat the shot clock and put the Sixers up 20 in the third quarter. He shook Nickeil Alexander-Walker for a step-back to beat the shot clock again and put the Sixers up 20 early in the fourth quarter. Maxey finished off his shooting barrage with a crossover between the legs and step-back a few possessions later to put the Sixers up 24:
Joel and James' reactions. https://t.co/Bv2O6sHOuj pic.twitter.com/jFLuYje8YO— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 8, 2023
If Minnesota didn’t know by then that there would be no coming back in this game, that last Maxey triple was the knockout punch
I was very encouraged to see Paul Reed look comfortable within Philadelphia’s offensive structure without Harden being there. A good sign that things are indeed clicking for the third-year big.
Melton’s three-point shot has come and gone after a sterling first half of the season. But, he laced three triples for Philadelphia in the first half. Melton’s finishing at the rim is erratic, and that’s putting it nicely. So, the Sixers are going to need him to find his range again if they’re going to trust Melton in the playoffs.
How about Harris going for 14 rebounds? Not a good rebounder for a forward, but he helped Philadelphia handily win the battle of the glass in this game.
When you thoroughly kick an above-.500 team’s — and a decent home team, at that’s — ass in its own building, not a lot to criticize. But, we have a few points to get to.
Edwards dunked all over Jalen McDaniels on one Timberwolves possession in the first half. Rough one, but live to fight another day. McDaniels is due to throw down a highlight-reel dunk one of these days.
I didn’t love Rivers not staggering Embiid and Maxey more in this game. Philadelphia committed two turnovers in a row to open the fourth quarter. Rivers immediately turned to Maxey to restore order before Minnesota felt too empowered. It obviously didn’t matter in the game’s outcome at all, but there’s just no reason not to stagger your two studs. That’s part of the value in having multiple stars.
If Tim Connelly hadn’t been signed to a five-year deal just months before the Gobert trade, I’d say the Timberwolves president of basketball operations might be sweating a bit. They gave up four first-round picks, three of which are unprotected; one pick swap; and Walker Kessler, who will likely be named to the All-Rookie first team this season. That, of course, is in addition to other players like Jarred Vanderbilt. All for Gobert, who looks like a shell of his prime self. Just an abhorrent trade. And I’m not sure there’s any way to recoup assets unless they trade Towns.
The Sixers (43-22) will host the Portland Trail Blazers (31-34) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.