Sixers vs Wolves Preview: The Rematch of NBA Unicorns

Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers will take on Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves in a rematch of November 17th's 110-86 Minnesota victory.
The Sixers will look to slow down Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight at the Wells Fargo Center | Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers will look to slow down Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight at the Wells Fargo Center | Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Just about a year ago today, Kevin Durant described New York big man Kristaps Porzingis as a unicorn for his rare combination of skills.

Since then, unicorn has entered regular NBA parlance, with Bill Simmons writing an article for The Ringer in an attempt to find the most unicorny of all the unicorns in existence. His list came down to 5 names: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joel Embiid.

Tonight’s Sixers vs Wolves matchup at the Wells Fargo Center will feature two such unicorns, as Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns will do battle for the second time this season. The first matchup, a 110-86 Minnesota victory in mid-November on national television, didn’t go so well for the hometown team, and Embiid and the Sixers will look to atone for that poor showing tonight in South Philadelphia.

The Details:
What: Sixers (8-24) vs Wolves (11-23)
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia
When: Tuesday, January 3rd at 7 PM Eastern
Watch: Comcast SportsNet

Projected Starting Lineups:
Sixers: T.J. McConnell, Gerald Henderson, Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova(?), Joel Embiid
Wolves: Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng

(Note: Official starting lineups are released approximately one hour before the game).

Injury Report:
Sixers: Ben Simmons (out, fractured right foot), Jerryd Bayless (out, left wrist), Sergio Rodriguez (out, let ankle sprain), Richaun Holmes (out, concussion), Gerald Henderson (probable, hip)
Wolves: Nikola Pekovic (out, Achilles).

About The Opponent:
Heading into the season many predicted that the Minnesota Timberwolves, with an additional year of experience for their young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine, along with the hiring of Tom Thibodeau as head coach, would take a significant step forward into being a factor in the Western Conference.

Instead, the Wolves have floundered, languishing towards the bottom of the standings with an 11-23 record thanks in large part to a defense (110.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) which ranks among the worst in the league.

Still, many of the individual pieces remain on an upward trajectory. Towns continues to be one of the more dynamic young big men in the game, with averages of 21.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game. Andrew Wiggins continues his evolution into a high-volume scorer (22.1 points per game), and Zach LaVine (20.9 points, 3.1 assists, 41.8 percent three-point shooting) remains their most consistent perimeter scorer.

Yet all that talent and athleticism has yet to translate into a team that can consistently compete on the defensive side of the court. Towns spends too much time defending away from the basket to maximize his defensive impact, and LaVine and Wiggins’ youth show up in a big way with inconsistent defensive effort and discipline. Wiggins and LaVine score, and they score a lot, but they don’t do enough outside of that to match the lofty expectations many bestowed upon them prior to the season.

Key Matchup:
The easy answer to this is Joel Embiid vs Karl-Anthony Towns. But we’re not sure how much Towns and Embiid will actually defend each other, as the two squared off for only a few brief possessions in Minnesota’s 110-86 victory on November 17th. They may defend each other more tonight, as the Sixers play far more two-big sets than they did back then, especially as Nerlens Noel continues to get more minutes, but exactly how much is still up in the air.

Instead, I’ll say the key is defending Andrew Wiggins, who went off for 35 points on 14-20 shooting from the field the last time these two team’s met. The Sixers will need a good game from Robert Covington, on both ends of the court, if they hope to compete tonight.

Random Stat:
The Wolves have had the same starting lineup in each of the last 25 games, a rarity for struggling teams. The starting lineup has competed offensively, with a 107.0 offensive rating that would be good for 9th in the league. The defense? 109.9. Which, as you may have guessed, is one of the worst in the league.

What To Look For:
– Embiid vs Towns. Please let it happen.
– Turnovers. Lots of turnovers. The Sixers commit the most turnovers in the league, and the Wolves the 11th most. That should lead to a lot of transition opportunities for both teams.
– Offensive rebounds. The Wolves haul in 28 percent of their missed shots, the third best rate in the league. The Sixers rank just 22nd in defensive rebounding rate.
– Whether head coach Brett Brown will start Jahlil Okafor alongside Joel Embiid once again. Brown was non-committal about it yesterday at practice, admitting that even if he does start both of them together, they’re likely to play less than they have been. That seems to suggest this iteration of the twin towers experiment may be drawing to a close. The results have been less than stellar.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.