76ers

Sixers 118, Timberwolves 109: Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden have Jimmy Butler's back in return to Minnesota

Sixers 118, Timberwolves 109: Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden have Jimmy Butler's back in return to Minnesota

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Jimmy Butler didn't have his finest performance, but Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden and the rest of his teammates picked him up in his return to Minnesota.

The Sixers got off to a sweltering start but wound up hanging on for dear life in a 118-109 win over the Timberwolves at Target Center Saturday night.

The team was without Joel Embiid (knee, load management) and will be without the All-Star center for their entire three-game road trip.

The victory improves the Sixers to 49-27 on the season and gets them one game closer to locking up the East's third seed.

Here are observations from the win.

• Welcome back to Minny, Jimmy.

We know that Butler doesn’t shy away from the villain role. He wears it proudly — literally.

Butler was quiet in the scoring department. He made a ton of hustle plays, but the Sixers could've used more from him offensively.  He finished with just 12 points on 4 of 17 shooting with 13 rebounds and five assists.

He did tweak his back coming down from a failed lob attempt. He didn't leave the game, but with Embiid expected to miss time, it's worth noting.

• Ben Simmons didn’t take or make a three, but the way he pushed the tempo created opportunities for his teammates. He racked up eight assists in the first half alone and was an efficient 4 of 5 for eight points.

In the second half, Minnesota stifled Simmons a bit as he finished with just nine assists overall and turned the ball over five times. He had 20 points (8 of 11 shooting) and 10 rebounds.

• With Embiid out of the lineup, Jonah Bolden got the start and the rookie ran with the opportunity. He was active early and it was clear All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns couldn’t match the springy young center’s energy.

Including on this ridiculous putback dunk where Towns failed to box Bolden out.

Bolden showed exactly what he can bring to the table in the playoffs. His athleticism, quick feet and ability to protect the rim could come in handy against more mobile big men. Discipline has been the biggest issue for Bolden this season, but he stayed out of trouble for the most part. He was a team-high plus-22 while Boban Marjanovic and Amir Johnson were combined minus-13.

He also hit five threes for good measure. He recorded 19 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

• The Sixers got off to a scorching hot start from the field. They hit eight threes in the first quarter for the second straight game. They went 8 of 13, with one of those misses being an end-of-quarter heave. They went ice cold the rest of the way, going just 7 of their last 18.

Leading the way was Tobias Harris, who was 3 of 5 from three in the first half. Harris has been in a shooting slump recently. He shot just 29 percent from three over his last 13 games coming in. He hadn’t hit three or more threes in a game since March 2, against the Warriors — a game in which he hit just 3 of 11.

You have to love the confidence coming with a shot like this off the dribble.

Unfortunately, Harris couldn't build on his fast start, but was solid with a team-high 25 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists.

• In his second game against his old team, former Sixer Dario Saric had a rough night from the field. "The Homie" went just 1 of 6 for four points.

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Sixers at Celtics: 3 storylines to watch and how to follow the game

Sixers at Celtics: 3 storylines to watch and how to follow the game

The Sixers (18-7) will be in Boston Thursday night to take on the Celtics (17-6) at TD Garden.

This would be Al Horford’s first appearance in Boston as a Sixer — if he plays. The veteran big, who opted out of his player option with the Celtics to join the Sixers this offseason, is questionable for tonight’s matchup with left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness. The 13-year veteran did participate in this morning’s shootaround.

Boston is coming off a tough loss in Indiana last night. It was also a rough night for Boston in the injury department. Gordon Hayward, who just returned to the lineup after missing 13 games with a broken hand, was forced to leave the game after taking a shot to the nose. He's listed as probable. Marcus Smart (eye infection) and Robert Williams (hip) will both miss their third straight game.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 8 p.m. ET 
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: TNT
Live stats: Follow here 

And here are three storylines to watch:

Big Al returns to Boston

Whether Horford plays or not, the reception he receives should be interesting. When he signed his big free-agent deal with the Celtics back in 2016, it was a move that helped the revitalization of the franchise.

Though the fan reaction will surely be mixed with Horford returning with a rival, the Celtics’ players will be happy to see him again.

“He should be celebrated,” Brown said to NBC Sports Boston. “Boston fans, they're gonna do what they want, right? Al came here, contributed, took this team the farthest it’s been since ‘08 [NBA champions]. Al served his time well here."

Brown added, “For me, he was a great leader, a great person … I know I’ll clap for him when they call his name. That’s just me.”

Just 23 games in a Sixers uniform and Horford has already had a similar impact on the players here.

“He’s just a real role model, in terms of how he lives his life,” Tobias Harris said to our Serena Winters. “There’s no real ups and downs with him. In my opinion, he’s the definition of a consistent person — comes in everyday, same attitude, same spirit, win or loss. The way he shapes his day-to-day life is inspiring for real.”

Embiid hears the criticism … and he agrees

In case you missed it, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal were blunt if their criticism of Joel Embiid after Tuesday night’s win over Denver. They said they felt like the All-Star center wasn’t putting in the effort to be great.

Embiid, who said postgame Tuesday that he wasn’t having as much fun this season, wasn’t offended by the criticism. In fact, he agreed with it.

“That’s what they do," Embiid told reporters. "Maybe they’re right. Maybe. I do think they are right. I do need to be more aggressive. Look to impose myself. Look to dominate. I think the whole season I haven’t done that and you can see the ways it’s affecting my efficiency and my stats. I guess I need to go back to having fun and just dominate. I get what they are saying. I think they are right and I gotta make a change.”

Embiid’s scoring numbers are down, but he’s still No. 1 in the NBA in terms of defensive rating for players averaging at least 25 minutes a game.

National TV, facing criticism, going on a tangent about not having fun, up against a rival — this seems like it’s lining up for a big night for the big man. 

J-Rich working off the rust

Josh Richardson was playing his best basketball as a Sixer when tightness in his right hamstring cost him six games. He returned Tuesday, but looked awfully rusty, going just 1 of 8 in under 20 minutes.

Though the Sixers went 5-1 in the games he missed, what the Sixers lost on both sides of the ball with Richardson out was evident. In the six games before his absence, Richardson was averaging 20.2 points while shooting a scalding 55.9 percent from three and 53.1 percent overall.

The skill the Sixers missed most was Richardson’s ability to create off the dribble, especially in the pick-and-roll. Brett Brown hasn’t run a ton of pick-and-roll in the past, but that’s mostly because of personnel. Richardson excels in that action and it’s one that helps the Sixers put other teams in a bind.

Richardson will still likely be on some form of minutes restriction.

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Open Joel Embiid thinks Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal were right, talks about everything he's juggling

Open Joel Embiid thinks Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal were right, talks about everything he's juggling

At times early in this season, Joel Embiid has sounded like he's been grappling with questions larger than how to counter an opponent's scheme. He wondered aloud after the Sixers' win over the Nuggets on Tuesday night whether his efforts to be more mature were worth it

Thursday in Boston, he gave perhaps the clearest picture yet of how he's juggling aggressive double teams, working with his new teammates, the priority on being healthy for the playoffs and many other factors.

He agreed with Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal's criticisms about him not pushing himself hard enough to be great. 

“That’s what they do," Embiid told reporters. "Maybe they’re right. Maybe. I do think they are right. I do need to be more aggressive. Look to impose myself. Look to dominate. I think the whole season I haven’t done that and you can see the ways it’s affecting my efficiency and my stats. I guess I need to go back to having fun and just dominate. I get what they are saying. I think they are right and I gotta make a change.”

Embiid's offensive numbers are down across the board, although part of that can be attributed to the fact that he's averaging 3.3 fewer minutes per game than he did last season. The two-time All-Star is averaging 22.0 points per game, compared to 27.5 in the 2018-19 season, and both his field goal percentage and free throw attempts have dropped. He also missed five of the Sixers' first 25 games as a result of injuries, his suspension for fighting with the Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns on Oct. 30, and load management.

To Embiid, those aren't valid excuses.

I can’t pick and choose whenever I want to dominate. It has to be a nightly thing. Then again, I’ve also got to take care of my body, so I’m still trying to find that balance between kind of putting my body at risk during the regular season and when I have the goal to get to the playoffs healthy. Still trying to find that balance and like I said, playing with my teammates, I’m still trying to learn. It’s been a big adjustment for me this year. I’m still trying to get a balance and get a feel for everything, and I’m sure by the end of the regular season we are going to be ready for the playoffs.

Defensively, Embiid has still been highly valuable. His 95.3 defensive rating is best in the NBA among players who have played at least 25 minutes per game. He's posting up more than any player in the league, too, and doing so efficiently, averaging 1.08 points per post-up possession. However, he's still adjusting to the frequency and aggression of the double teams he's faced.

"I’ve said earlier that I want to get to the playoffs healthy," he said. "The last two years I have not been healthy. Two years ago it was my face, and last year it was my knee and I was sick, so this year I kind of told myself that I want to get there healthy. We’ve got a new group and I’m still trying to get used to it. It’s completely different, the way I’m being guarded this year, just every time I touch the ball, heavy double and triple teams, just trying to navigate through it and be a basketball player, make the right plays.

"If I get double teamed, my teammates know I’m going to pass it. It's a balance between trying to make something happen for the team and making the right plays."

The expectations for Embiid and the Sixers were very high entering this season. Even after watching the Sixers move to 18-7 and 13-0 at Wells Fargo Center, Barkley, who picked the team as his champion before the season, said they "ain't got not chance" at winning the title.

Embiid might not hear all of it, but he understands the gist of those expectations and the essence of the criticisms. He talked Tuesday about not wanting to be a distraction, which he seemed to think might, at times, curb his fun-loving side.

Thursday, he referenced O'Neal's comments about his scoring numbers not being enough.

"Yes, that’s the high standard that I set," he said. "It just feels like if I don’t score 35 points or 40 points, it feels like a down game — even when I have 30, so it’s just the way it is. I signed up for it. I want to be great. I put the work in to be at this level and to be better. I still feel like I have a lot of potential and people feel the same way. So, it’s only right for people to expect me to, like Shaq and Charles said, to drop 35 a night.

"So, like I said, I’m not a selfish player, I’ll take whatever the defense gives me. If they are going to double team me all night, and I only got to take two shots I will do that, too. I’ve got to play within the concept of the game and follow whatever the team wants me to do. I’ve been following it and if it takes me taking five shots a game, I guess I’ve got to do it."

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