Led by 25 points from rookie big man Joel Embiid the Sixers held on for a 93-91 victory over the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves for their 9th win of the season.
The Sixers didn’t pick up their 9th win until March 11th last season.
In many ways, the game was a microcosm of the the Sixers’ season, with the flashes of dominance from Joel Embiid that showcased his seemingly inevitable rise to NBA superstardom, mixed in with a combination of youth, roster imbalance, and deficient perimeter talent that let the Wolves back into a game they had no right clawing their way back into.
The game featured an exciting first half where the Sixers held the Wolves, owners of the league’s 11th ranked offense, to just 42 points on 37.8 percent shooting from the field, building a 15-point half time lead with Embiid and Nerlens Noel combining to form a legitimate foundation to a competitive NBA defense.
The Sixers don’t have the talent or experience to make anything easy, however, and after an 11-0 run to start the second half pushed the lead to a game-high 26 points, things started to fall apart, thanks in large part to the Sixers’ youth, inexperience, and perimeter struggles. The Sixers turned the ball over 13 times in the second half, handcuffing their own offense and igniting the Wolves’ previously stagnant attack.
“Our offense let us down in the 2nd half when we had 13 turnovers. It actually felt like more. That’s a massive number,” head coach Brett Brown said after the game. “And because of that we weren’t able to get up and down. I felt like we slowed down a little bit.”
That third quarter Minnesota run to get them back into the game was highlighted by a 14-3 run when Brown sent Joel Embiid to the bench, a period of just over 4 minutes where the Sixers had 4 turnovers to just 1 made shot.
The blame for that effort could easily be placed upon Jahlil Okafor, the now-reserve-center who played just 5 minutes in the first half of action, but that would be an overly simplistic view. In truth, the collapse was a team effort, with 4 different players (McConnell, Luwawu-Cabarrot, Saric, Okafor) all committing a turnover, with Saric, Covington, and Ilyasova combining to go 1-6 from three-point range, and with defensive breakdowns galore on the other end of the court.
Perhaps Sixers fans, and NBA fans as a whole, should be thankful for that stretch of play because it enabled fans to get an extended 1-on-1 game between Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns down the stretch. The results weren’t necessarily pretty — Towns and Embiid combined to shoot just 3-9 from the field for 7 points after Embiid checked back in with 5:55 remaining in a 6-point game — with both big men seemingly caught up in the moment, forcing shots against tough matchups in an effort to assert their will and dominance on a game.
Joel Embiid, for all of his brilliance throughout much of the game, committed 2 of his 3 turnovers in a 25 second span in the waning minutes of the game. Turnovers which, on another night, could have been the difference. He’ll learn.
“As good as Joel (Embiid) is, he’s still growing in navigating an end of a game. He had 2 big turnovers at the end. You know, it’s no secret we’re going to Jo. A lot,” Brown said after the game, saying that Embiid was an option on the game-winning play if Covington wasn’t able to free himself. “If we look back in those situations, there’s been a lot of turnovers late in games from Joel, and it’s just going to be part of his growth.”
But even if the results weren’t necessarily great, the effort and enthusiasm were. This was a display of two of the game’s brightest young stars bound and determined to will their team to victory, playing a style of physical basketball that forced the referees to swallow their whistles and let the two slug it out. And while neither big man was all that effective offensively, they both rose to the challenge defensively, supreme in both their effort and technique.
You can’t help but wonder what this matchup will look like in 3 years when these two big men are just beginning to enter their physical prime, when handling the double teams and defensive attention has become second nature to these young franchise players.
“It was great. He’s (Towns) a pretty good player, and going against him, I wish we would play them more than twice a year,” Embiid said after the game. “Since the last game ended at Minnesota I had this game on my calendar, and I’m glad we got the win.”
As head coach Brett Brown noted after the game, it all had a very playoff atmosphere to it, something that is hard to come by for young players on bad teams. That made it invaluable in and of itself.
“Let it go. I love it,” Brown said after the game about the lack of whistles. “Playing in May and June is a hell of a lot different than playing in January. If people just put us in a box, and we had no idea what the calendar said and you just watched a game, you’d say ‘Well, this looks a little bit different’. Physicality is good, and it’s good for those young guys to experience it. That’s a very competitive matchup with two young potential stars.”
It also helps that the Sixers were able to find a way to win this game, something they’ve failed to do oh-so-many times this year, but have been able to find a way to do so in each of the past two games. The tone around the game would have been wildly different if Dario Saric’s lob to Robert Covington didn’t fall with 0.2 seconds remaining, but the experience is valuable regardless. In the end, the Sixers get the best of both worlds: the experience in playing in a tough, physical, defensive-minded game down the stretch and the confidence boost that comes from closing it out successfully.
Joel Embiid led the Sixers with 25 points (8-20 shooting, 8-11 from the line), 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocked shots. His counterpart, Karl-Anthony Towns, finished with an eerily similar stat line of 26 points (9-22 shooting), 15 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks of his own.
Embiid was joined by just Ersan Ilyasova (19 points on 7-14 shooting, 5 rebounds) and Robert Covington (13 points on 4-14, 10 rebounds, 4 steals) in double figures, with Nerlens Noel (8 points on 4-5 shooting in an 11 minute run) providing a boost in his short minutes. The Sixers also received steady point guard play from T.J. McConnell, who finished with 8 assists to just 2 turnovers as an emergency starter, his 3rd such strong performance in a starting role this season.
For the Wolves, Towns was aided by Zach LaVine on the offensive side of the court, who finished with 28 points on 11-20 shooting, including 8 points during a 10-0 run by the Wolves in the momentum-changing third quarter.
The Sixers were able to exact revenge on the Wolves for the 24-point shellacking the Wolves subjected them to in Minnesota on November 17th, a national television embarrassment for Brett Brown’s squad. It doesn’t erase the memory of that loss, not in the slightest, but it does provide at least a little bit of relief for a young team that, when deployed correctly, appears to be starting to turn things around.
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Robert Covington’s season in 30 seconds
During a 30-second window in the 2nd quarter, small forward Robert Covington airballed a three-point attempt, then followed it up with tough defense on third-year star Andrew Wiggins, forcing the 21-year-old focal point for the Wolves into yet another miss.
If ever there was a game to exemplify Covington’s season, tonight was it.
Covington’s shooting struggles continued a big way, as the previously-sweet-shooting forward out of Tennessee State shot just 1-9 from three-point range in the game, dropping his season average to 27.8 percent from deep. Covington shot 36.3 percent on 939 three-point attempts in his NBA career heading into this season.
Yet Covington was unquestionably one of the Sixers’ best players on the night, and it had little to do with his layup with 0.2 seconds remaining that propelled the Sixers to victory. Andrew Wiggins, who is averaging 21.7 points per game as one of the league’s more dynamic young scorers, was held to just 2-15 shooting for 8 points on the evening thanks in large part to the effort, and game plan, of Robert Covington.
It was just the third time all season that Wiggins was held below 10 points.
“Robert takes some hits out there (with the fans), but I tell you what, I wished everybody would see what we see defensively,” head coach Brett Brown said after the game. “Andrew Wiggins was 2-15. Think of that. He was 2-for-15. And that’s Robert Covington. Kind of end of story.”
The fans, weary of Covington’s shooting struggles, starting booing the fourth year forward after his first missed shot. Joel Embiid, himself emerging as a leader on this young team, was there to boost Covington’s spirits.
“Oh man, just keep shooting. I don’t care. The fans are going to be fans. They started booing him after the first shot of the game he missed,” Embiid said about the advice he gave to Covington, showcasing the presence necessary for Embiid to grow into the kind of leader the team wants him to be, and needs him to become, down the line. “They’re going to double team (me) and I’m going to find you. So just keep firing it. Just keep shooting the ball.”
For Covington this has been far and away the worst shooting slump of his career, taking away the one aspect of his game that has been a consistent weapon for him since his days at Proviso West in the Chicago suburbs. In its place Covington has supplanted shooting with another consistent weapon in his arsenal: stout perimeter defense and a commitment to crashing the defensive glass, of which he collected a team-high 9 of as the Sixers held the strong offensive rebounding Wolves to just 9 offensive rebounds on 49 missed shots.
Covington has slowly grown into a leader on this young Sixers squad, by virtue of his (relative) experience, his (relative) long tenure with the team, and the kind of respect his defensive contributions naturally warrant in a locker room. That enhanced role forces Covington to overcome his offensive struggles with consistent effort.
“No matter what, the fans can get on me as much as they want, I never let that get in my head. Because at the end of the day I still have a job to do,” Covington said after the game. “People are just focusing on, a lot of times, just one aspect of the game. They don’t see the whole game at full. What we see is I might have shot bad on the offensive end, but we chart things like a lot of deflections, diving for loose balls, rebounding. A lot of the stuff that people don’t really pay attention to.
“I have to guard the best people on the other team. I still have to make plays for my teammates. I can’t get caught up with what’s going on in the crowd,” Covington continued. “My teammates, they push me. I’m one of the leaders on this team, and I don’t want to let them down. I want to give them my all every time I step on the court because if I do it, then they’ll do it as well.”
That consistent defensive effort in the face of adversity has been impressive for Covington, and him being the recipient of a Joel Embiid screen and a gorgeous Dario Saric pass to win the game was a fitting reward. When looking at role players, particularly shooters, one of the traits that the valuable ones possess is maintaining effort and focus despite adversity. Covington has passed that test in flying colors so far this season.
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Brown reverts back to the Ilyasova/Embiid frontcourt pairing
Before the game, Sixers head coach Brett Brown talked about his decision to revert back to the Ersan Iyasova / Joel Embiid frontcourt pairing.
“It creates space. It puts Joel (Embiid) where he should be. It allows the court to be far more spread (and) defenses have to come from a longer way to double team him,” Brown said before the game, a game in which Okafor received just 10 minutes of playing time, none of which came with Joel Embiid on the court. “Part of these pairings that we talk about, it also affects Joel. Growing Joel Embiid should be, maybe, our number 1 goal. I feel like Ersan Ilyasova allows us to do that.”
And, just as Brown described, the Embiid/Ilyasova pairing was his best chance at having success, with the Sixers outscoring the Wolves 51-43 in the 22.5 minutes of playing time they shared the court.
That desire to pair Embiid with a floor spacer like Ilyasova has a drastic impact on the minutes available to both Noel and Okafor, something which was evident last night. Outside of a 3+ minute run in the second quarter, Brown went the majority of the game with only one natural center on the court.
Before the game Brown, despite his preference of having Embiid paired with the sweet-shooting Ilyasova, did mention that he was going to try to force feed the Noel/Embiid pairing. “I’m terrified offensively, but I’m extremely curious defensively. So we have to (try it),” Brown said before the game.
After the game, Brown said his intention was to try Embiid/Noel lineups more in the second half, but after the Wolves blitzed the Sixers in the third quarter to bring the score close Brown altered his plans to instead go out and try to win a game, shelving further experimentation until a later date.
That puts Brown in a tricky situation. Noel and Embiid were a +1 in their short run together, showcasing not only an ability to wreak havoc defensively, but also some nifty interior passing on the offensive side of the court. For a team that has lost so much of their transition offense over the years as they shifted from raw athletes to shooters on the perimeter, Noel and Embiid present an opportunity to get some of that back. Violence at the rim can turn into speed in transition, especially when Ben Simmons returns to the fold.
Yet the Ilyasova and Embiid pairing has been playing so well together — with the Sixers going 5-5 in the 10 games the two have started together, with the synergistic relationship between Embiid and Ilyasova’s skills allowing Ilyasova the open looks necessary to hit 44.2 percent of his three-point attempts with Embiid on the court, with the Sixers having a net rating of +7.6 points per 100 possessions in the 292 minutes Embiid and Ilyasova have shared the court — that going away from that lineup to an experimentation is going to be a challenge for a coach trying to balance winning, player development, and evaluation.
The Noel/Embiid lineup will happen, and it will be analyzed, scrutinized, and debated. It just may be deployed selectively while Brett Brown tries to build something, especially on the heels of how the previous Embiid/Okafor experiment derailed the progress the team had made been making over the previous weeks.
Joel Embiid wins Rookie of the Month for December
Prior to the game it was announced that Joel Embiid had been named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for games played in December.
Embiid averaged 19.8 points per game in December, shooting 44.8 percent from the field while collecting 6.8 rebounds, dishing out 2.3 assists, and blocking 2.4 shots per game in the process, all that despite averaging just 27.3 minutes per game. The Eastern Conference rookie closest to Embiid’s 19.8 point scoring average in the month of December was rookie Dario Saric, who averaged 9.9 points per game in that span. Malcolm Brogdon (9.1 per game in December) of Milwaukee was the highest non-Sixer teammate.
After the game Embiid joked that making the All-Star game was his priority over winning Rookie of the Year.
“Rookie of the Year would be great, but I don’t think it’s going to help me get to my crush, so hopefully the All-Star (bid happens),” Embiid said, before breaking into laughter. “But, you know, I’m just trying to help the team win games. If I’m playing well and we’re winning games, that’s what I want.”
Embiid had previously joked that his dating life had propelled him to play at an All-Star level.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.