The Timberwolves ruined a perfect script Saturday night at Wells Fargo Center.
Joel Embiid returned after nine games out following a positive COVID-19 test and lifted the Sixers to a 20-point second-half comeback. However, his 42 points and 14 rebounds were not enough in a 121-120 double overtime loss that dropped the Sixers to 10-10.
D’Angelo Russell (35 points) drained a three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left in overtime. The Timberwolves then fouled Tyrese Maxey, who made his first free throw and intentionally missed the second. Andre Drummond then came up with perhaps the most clutch rebound in the NBA yet this season, tipping it in to tie the game at 113-all and force a second overtime. Anthony Edwards (19 points) had missed a potential game-winning three at the end of regulation.
Embiid almost carried the Sixers across the finish line in the second overtime, but the team couldn’t seal victory. A Naz Reid fast-break layup with 4.8 seconds left put Minnesota ahead. The Timberwolves swarmed Embiid on the ensuing possession and he couldn't get off a clean look.
Karl-Anthony Towns posted 28 points and 10 rebounds.
Tobias Harris came back after missing two games with left hip soreness. Shake Milton (left groin soreness) was a late scratch.
The Sixers will play the Magic on Monday in Philadelphia. Here are observations on their wild loss to Minnesota:
The big guy’s back
The Sixers misfired on their first six field goals and allowed the Timberwolves to grab a 13-4 lead. Two of those misses came on Embiid jumpers.
Towns was sharp from the opening tip, scoring Minnesota’s first seven points on a three-ball, fast-break bucket after a Maxey turnover, and rolling layup. Edwards was also aggressive, converting a leaning lefty layup after driving directly into Embiid’s body.
Harris was among the Sixers who appeared rusty, misfiring on a mid-range attempt and having the ball slip from his hands in the paint on a play that should’ve been an easy layup.
Embiid didn’t lose his knack for drawing fouls, taking six free throws in his opening stint of nearly eight minutes and a season-high 21 in the game. He made 16 of them.
In the long term, it’s a major plus that Embiid played 45 minutes and wasn’t noticeably winded or worn out. It’s also good news that he mostly handled double teams effectively. He was patient and comfortable firing skip passes when that was the right play. However, an Embiid turnover set the stage for Russell's big-time shot at the end of the first overtime.
Embiid's presence alone is valuable in so many ways. He's essential for this team and an incredibly dangerous two-way weapon late in games.
Though the conventional wisdom is that it's trickier to run fourth-quarter offense through a big man than through a guard, Embiid's shooting skill and foul drawing acumen put him in a different category. Seven-footers don't generally hit the step-back and fadeaway jumpers Embiid drained in the second overtime.
The KAT and Ant-Man Show early
Minnesota stretched its advantage to 33-17 late in the first period. Towns and Edwards scored all but six of those points on 12-for-14 combined shooting.
That duo was stellar driving downhill and putting pressure on the Sixers’ defense. Minnesota held a 20-0 points in the paint edge after a quarter, a statistic that indicates how poorly the Sixers began on both ends and how well Towns and Edwards attacked the rim.
“They were just driving by us in the first half," Harris said. “We weren’t even there."
With the T-Wolves’ stars sitting, the Sixers’ second unit cut the team’s deficit to single digits early in the second period. The bench again included Danny Green, who the Sixers are bringing back gradually after the veteran’s four-game absence with left hamstring tightness.
Matisse Thybulle started and was one of the primary defenders on Edwards, who had far fewer chances to explode to the hoop after his early surge. Thybulle’s relative lack of offensive production can certainly be an issue, though, on the rare nights he’s not otherworldly on defense.
In his 29 minutes, Thybulle had six points and five rebounds. He came up with a steal and fast-break dunk to tie the game at 95-all. Thybulle also hit a slashing lefty layup in the first extra session, the kind of play the Sixers would love to see him add to his game consistently.
Towns wasn't quite as great after halftime and fouled out with 18.5 seconds to go in the fourth following a clutch offensive board from Harris. Harris split his two free throws, knotting the game at 100 apiece.
Second-half change of pace
About the only good thing one could say about the Sixers’ first half is they earned free throws. The team failed to discover any rhythm or flow, though, and didn’t hit most of the open shots they were able to create. The Sixers played like a team that hadn’t been together for a long time, which was indeed the case.
“I thought we were running in quicksand in the first half," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “I showed the guys at halftime, I think we had 12 point-blank, wide-open shots — all of them hit the front rim. I told them, ‘You’ll get your legs. Just keep playing. Keep moving the ball.’ And I thought we did that. Defensively, we had to be better than in the first half. They shot 59 percent. But it was a tough game.”
One factor in the Sixers' first-half woes was the Timberwolves’ success forcing the ball from Maxey’s hands by hedging hard in pick-and-rolls. Maxey was content to pass to the open man and let others make plays. The problem for the Sixers was that Harris didn’t look like himself, Seth Curry missed a few jumpers that might’ve shifted momentum, and the team as a whole struggled to reach a higher gear.
Maxey committed four turnovers Saturday, his most in a game since Nov. 13. He finished the night with 15 points on 5-for-15 shooting and nine assists. It’s valid to wonder whether he can sustain his fantastic play from when the Sixers were shorthanded.
Having a healthy team is obviously better for the Sixers, but it does mean there’s more Maxey needs to juggle as the team’s point guard. There was no reason to be concerned about the 21-year-old overthinking when the Sixers were sorely depleted and it was clear he needed to post big scoring numbers.
Maxey played at a quicker pace and aimed to get his own shots in the third quarter, pouring in five straight Sixers points. A common theme when the Sixers have been bogged down offensively this season is using a faster tempo as the way out. A pull-up Maxey three trimmed the T-Wolves’ lead to 71-68 late in the third. He then hit Embiid on a duck-in and the MVP runner-up’s layup made it 71-70, capping a 29-10 run.
“Joel was on me today about pushing the ball, pushing the pace, getting the ball up the court, finding guys or scoring at the rim," Maxey said. “It’s just a learning experience.”
Curry subbed in for Maxey when the second-year guard picked up his fifth foul with 9:32 left in the fourth. Russell then nailed two important threes to rebuild Minnesota's edge to 87-76.
The Sixers weren't near out of it, however, as Harris, Maxey and Embiid were all determined to score and keep the team within reach. Their efforts led to all the chaos that ensued down the stretch.