Joel Embiid and the Sixers had been anticipating the night he was deemed good to go for quite a while.
Embiid on Saturday returned from a 10-game absence with a left knee bone bruise, posting 24 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in a 122-113 win at Wells Fargo Center over the Timberwolves.
The game was also his first in front of home fans in over a year.
The All-Star center no longer has to imagine what the reaction might be when he does something special.
“Fans are always there for me when I play, and I always mention that,” he said after scoring a career-high 50 points on Feb. 19 with no Sixers fans in attendance. “Playing in Philly, I have a lot of pride, and I play for the fans and I play for the city. All my goals when it comes to basketball are related to the city of Philadelphia. I always feel like they’re here with us, even though they’re not. I always feel their presence.”
Tobias Harris scored 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting and Ben Simmons had 14 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds and six assists.
Karl-Anthony Towns played an excellent game with 39 points and 14 rebounds. Largely thanks to Towns, Minnesota cut a deficit once as high as 19 points down to four late in the fourth quarter.
The victory moved the Sixers, who will play the Grizzlies at home Sunday night, to 34-15.
George Hill was on the team’s bench for the first time, though there’s still no timetable for his return from right thumb surgery. Head coach Doc Rivers said before the game that Hill is able to shoot but hasn’t been cleared yet for contact drills.
Here are three observations on the Sixers' win over Minnesota:
Embiid the showman
Embiid fell to the floor on his first drive of the game, hitting the ground after he pump-faked a three-pointer from the left wing and attacked the rim. He got up just fine, though, hearing MVP chants during a 2-for-2 trip at the foul line.
Rivers said pregame that Embiid was in “great condition,” and there wasn’t any evidence to the contrary. The Sixers didn’t immediately give him an immense workload, however, as he checked out with 5:35 left in the first quarter and played 28 minutes total.
The shorthanded Timberwolves double teamed Embiid often when he caught the ball on the wing or in the post. Embiid didn’t force things much, instead crashing the offensive glass, exploiting his size advantage and attempting 10 free throws within his first nine minutes. He earned free throws seven and eight by beating Jaden McDaniels down the floor and sealing off the lighter defender, a positive play on the effort and conditioning fronts.
The 27-year-old’s first field goal was a dunk.
Towns soon scored on a dunk of his own, throwing it down over the player he’d fought with back on Oct. 30, 2019. That chaotic night felt like it was four or five years ago, in truth, given how much has happened in the world and in Embiid and Towns’ lives since then. Towns has tragically had seven family members pass away from COVID-19, including his mother, Jacqueline. His father, Karl Sr., was supporting him at Wells Fargo Center Saturday night. Embiid has become a father, which he’s called “an amazing experience.”
Embiid was called for a Flagrant 1 foul with 7:38 left in the fourth quarter for hacking Towns after he drove past him, but the two were certainly never close to another brawl.
The best moment of Embiid’s evening was an off-balance, and-one floater followed by what we’ll describe as a from-the-floor, two-handed chopping celebration.
Embiid has talked a lot in the past about how he plays better basketball when he’s having fun. This season obviously hasn’t been joyless for him, but Saturday was a reminder that he likes entertaining a crowd.
Simmons had two first-quarter dunks. The first stemmed from a fake dribble handoff, while the second appeared to come from a Pistol action with Simmons, Danny Green and Embiid as Minnesota botched its coverage and the 24-year-old had a free path through the lane.
After a 2-for-11 shooting performance Thursday against the Cavs, Simmons was more effective around the rim. Of course, there’s little chance that anything goes wrong on dunks.
“Yeah, I think whenever you can, you should (dunk). I didn’t have that ability, so I always used the glass," Rivers said.
Simmons and Matisse Thybulle were the Sixers’ two main defenders on No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards, who scored 27 points on 10-for-23 shooting. Thybulle swooped in for one of his signature rearview blocks late in the second quarter, swatting the jumper of an unsuspecting Edwards. The rookie will likely be more wary of Thybulle in those situations next time he faces the Sixers.
The Sixers committed some defensive mistakes against the young Timberwolves, although Towns and Edwards each deserve credit for impressive individual plays. Several Sixers defenders were overzealous, with Green, Harris and Shake Milton all picking up three first-half fouls.
“ ... I thought fundamentally, we were horrendous in the first half, and then I thought in the second half, the third quarter, we made no adjustments," Rivers said. “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. Those are not our rules. Once we got to doing (our rules), I thought we were in pretty good shape.”
This was the second consecutive game in which Harris has encountered foul trouble. That’s not worth being concerned about, although he’s too valuable for fouls to be a problem in the playoffs. There very well may be postseason games in which Harris needs to be highly cognizant of avoiding fouls so that he can stay on the floor.
Harris keeps doing his thing
Harris scored nearly two points per field-goal attempt despite only taking four free throws (all in the fourth quarter). Not easy to do.
He was especially good at the start of both halves, scoring six of the Sixers’ first nine points and notching four during a 13-0 run to begin the third period. Harris netted six key points late, too, continuing to be a go-to player for the Sixers in the clutch.
Both Harris and the Sixers look comfortable identifying individual matchups where he can thrive without grinding the team’s offense to a halt. If he can back his defender down and take a good shot, Harris will. If a double team prevents him from going to work, he’ll usually find the open man.
Mike Scott was Harris’ backup Saturday, shifting from the starting center role he’d played during Embiid’s absence. He scored three points in 15 minutes.