Joel Embiid after victory over Celtics
Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Philadelphia 76ers (33-15) returned home to face the Timberwolves (12-37) after a 4-2 road trip out West. The Sixers were looking to build a two-game winning streak. The Timberwolves were looking to avoid their second consecutive loss. Joel Embiid scored 24 points and pulled down 8 rebounds in his return as the Sixers outlasted the Timberwolves, 122-113.

Before we get to what I saw, some context.

Contextual Notes

Joel Embiid returned to the lineup after a ten-game absence. George Hill remained out as he recovers from surgery on his right thumb. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Tobias Harris, and Embiid.

The Timberwolves were without the services of D’Angelo Russell (surgery on left knee), Ricky Rubio (back spasms), and Malik Beasley (sore left hamstring). Chris Finch started Jordan McLaughlin, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie, Jaden McDaniels, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

First Half

Simmons began this game extremely aggressive. That hasn’t really been a problem of late for him. The problem has been actually finishing at the rim when bodies occupy the surrounding space. Simmons did a better job of dedicating his drives to finishing dunks instead of leaving junk hanging on awkward layups. Don’t misinterpret that as me saying he wasn’t doing it at all. He still left some bunnies hanging that trickled off the rim. But, he did put forth a concerted effort to finish clean drives with dunks. The next step, of course, if not the jump shot, is to adopt that mentality at all times. The selectivity of that mentality is a perfectly reasonable gripe in the Ben Simmons discourse.

Rivers would prefer Simmons play above the rim. “I think whenever you can dunk the ball, you should,” Rivers said. “I didn’t have that ability, so I always used the glass.”

Karl-Anthony Towns took out a season’s worth of frustration on Embiid in the second quarter. The All-Star big man attacked Embiid at the rim and authoritatively punched one home on the big fella. The Timberwolves fans and NBA Twitter will rightfully have their fun with that one. Embiid is the victim of a poster, and a gorgeous (nasty) one at that. It happens to everyone, and he’s had quite a few of his own.

Shaking Off The Rust 

Embiid’s strategy against the Wolves was very promising given his long absence. He was unafraid of contact or traffic around the rim and was not even the slightest bit foggy. Embiid baited Minnesota into thirteen free throw attempts in the first half. He was as sharp as he normally is, sensing opportunities for contact and leveraging his size and skills to generate it. Aside from a few blind-side turnovers and missed freebies, Embiid looked as though he hadn’t missed a beat.

It has reached the point where Tobias Harris is virtually automatic from any distance within the free throw line-extended area. Whether he’s fading right, fading left, or shimmying in the low post, the shot looks good every time. Harris has spoken extensively of the value in practicing strictly the shots you’ll take in games, not just any shot. His proficiency from that area makes it quite clear that his practices in perfecting those shots are tireless.

Matisse Thybulle could write a textbook on blocking shots from the trail side. Ball-handlers can never feel too comfortable after emerging from screens when Thybulle is the defender involved in the action. His length enables him to reach out far beyond his body and tip the ball away at the right moment. It’s a tremendous source of fastbreak offense, as those live-ball turnovers often occur when the offensive team’s other four players are far in front of the play. When Thybulle tips away those shots, he’s creating 3-on-1 or 3-on-0 transition opportunities. Obviously, it’s nothing more than luck or poor offensive execution when the defense is able to escape without surrendering points on those transition possessions.

Second Half

The Sixers were able to create some serious separation in this game with crisp defensive rotations and clean fundamentals in the third quarter. They knew exactly where to rotate when helpers slid over to shut off leaks, they closed out with choppy feet and control, and they were disciplined enough to keep their hands active in passing lanes without using them to keep pace with their assignments. While the offense was bumpy at times, the Sixers were able to maintain their separation on the defensive side of the court.

Rivers seemed to agree with that assessment after the victory. “I think everybody’s defense is more fundamentals because the only way you can have any kind of strategy is you have to have the fundamentals down first,” Rivers said. “I thought, fundamentally, we were horrendous in the first half. Then, I thought in the second half, the third quarter, we made no adjustments. We just did what we should do. Get into the ball, fight over screens. Smother people, don’t give them room. If you’re that far off, that probably means you’re not in the right defensive spot. We helped from the corners five times in the first half and three of them were threes. So, those are not our rules, and once we got to doing that, I thought we were in pretty good shape.”

“But offensively, way too many turnovers.”

Embiid’s rust showed itself a bit after halftime. There were a pair of plays in which he was forced to commit excessively physical fouls to prevent Towns from getting all the way to the rim. To his credit, he also made a number of incredible plays to prevent Edwards from scoring at the rim late in the game. That lateral agility is part of conditioning. I expect Embiid will sharpen up that agility as he gets re-acclimated to NBA speed.

According to Embiid, the easy part of getting re-acclimated is actually the defensive side of the ball. “Defensively, it’s easy. I just gotta be myself. Block shots, protect the paint. Not let anything get in there,” Embiid said.

“But offensively, the brace that I was wearing, it just felt like I didn’t have to wear them all game. It just felt like I had an itch on my shot every single, which, you saw it wasn’t smooth. I had to wear them. I hate the brace, so that was part of it. So, I just got to get used to it and play with it. Keep playing with it and hoping it gets better. But offensively, way too many turnovers. Obviously they double and triple every time I have the ball on the block. It’s fitting because the coach [Chris Finch], he comes from Toronto. So, I knew going into the game that was gonna happen. But, I just got to get it safe to my teammates, get back to knowing when to pass it, are we moving. But, it’s gonna come with time.” 

“Just win by any means.”

When the Sixers needed a closer against an improved-but-still-awful Timberwolves team, Harris stepped up. He continues to step into that role with remarkable confidence. Part of what makes him so reliable and trustworthy is that he won’t pick the wrong time to step outside of his bread-and-butter to try to score. When it’s winning time, Harris goes right to what he knows best. Tonight, he scored 12 points in the fourth quarter to put the Timberwolves away.

Harris spoke about being the Sixers’ go-to guy after the win. “I know fourth quarter is crunch time. It’s ways to get the mismatches I want out there and then to get to my spots and just reading the game,” Harris said. “I thought, tonight, I was able to get to those spots and my teammates out there was able to have the confidence to continue to push me to go get the ball again and again. Just win by any means. Just internal confidence to know that. Now, you gotta live and die by the results, whatever it may be. So, I know the intention behind it and I know my intention is to do whatever I can to walk into that locker room with a win.”

The Sixers (34-15) will host the Memphis Grizzlies (23-23) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can watch it on NBC Sports Philadelphia.