As he so often has this season, Joel Embiid led the way for the Sixers on Friday night in Minnesota. By late in the third quarter, the team didn’t need him to do any more work.
Embiid was able to watch comfortably from the bench for the final 14:04 after recording 37 points, 11 rebounds and three assists in the Sixers’ 118-94 win over the Timberwolves at Target Center.
The 14-6 Sixers will next play Sunday night against the Pacers.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers began his pregame media availability by sharing his admiration for Hall of Fame coach and Philadelphia basketball icon John Chaney, who died Friday at 89 years old.
“I just loved him as a man,” Rivers said. “I loved how he carried himself, I loved how he fought for his team, his players but also just the institution in a lot of ways. He was so much more than a basketball coach. He really was a teacher, and a teacher of life. We don’t have a lot like that anymore. He’ll be missed.”
Here are observations on the Sixers’ win Friday:
Weathering early shooting struggles
Embiid’s status was in question throughout the day because of back tightness, but he was in the Sixers’ starting lineup. It was an appealing matchup for him on paper against veteran Ed Davis as Minnesota was without big men Karl-Anthony Towns (health and safety protocols) and Naz Reid (right wrist sprain).
However, Embiid misfired early on the mid-range jumpers he’s been sinking so frequently this season. He missed his first five shots and the Sixers were 2 for 14 as a team on mid-range attempts in the first period, according to Cleaning the Glass. Ben Simmons started 0 for 5, too.
The Sixers managed to score at something resembling a normal rate by drawing plenty of free throws, though, and Embiid was the standout as usual in that category. With his 16-for-18 night at the foul line, Embiid has now made 152 free throws.
That’s second in the league behind Trae Young despite Embiid having sat out four games, and one factor that bolsters the notion of the Sixers being capable of beating the Eastern Conference’s elite in the postseason. He’s seemingly a lock for double-digit free throw attempts every game at this point.
While it’s likely necessary for players like Seth Curry, Danny Green and Shake Milton to make open jumpers for the Sixers to excel in the postseason, Embiid’s foul drawing and general 1-on-1 brilliance mitigates the harm of any shooting problems, as we saw Friday. His sharp early-season work against double teams is also a positive sign when considering the big picture for the Sixers.
“It’s just dominance on his part,” Tobias Harris said. “I think he’s figured it out, and he’s done such a great job of creating plays for other guys out of the post. Tonight they had to guard him straight up. He’s continuing to figure that out, continuing to be dominant out there and it’s a pleasure to be able to be on the floor with him when he has that demeanor and he’s going like that. It makes us a really great team.”
Tyrese Maxey chipped in six key second-quarter points at a stage when the team’s second unit also wasn’t experiencing much offensive success or rhythm.
Avoiding a bad pattern from last season
A troubling trend for the 2019-20 Sixers on the road was the team’s frustration with its offensive woes leaking into shoddy defense.
“You just can’t live on your offense,” Rivers said during training camp. “And that’s not just our team, but teams that don’t do well. Your offense will let you down. … That’s being human; that happens. But you can still win the game. If we can get that type of confidence that we’re going to win whether we make shots or not, it would make us a heck of a force.”
Friday night’s game was an excellent example of Rivers’ point. It would’ve been easy (and understandable) for the Sixers to lose focus and intensity defensively. Logic suggested their superior talent would win out at some point, but no team is good enough to survive a ghastly shooting stretch simply by hoping it’ll start hitting jumpers eventually. The Sixers needed to compete on defense, and they deserve credit for doing so.
Matisse Thybulle had an especially strong defensive evening, picking up three of the Sixers’ 11 steals. Rivers said the Sixers have been asking Thybulle to focus on being “solid” defensively, since he doesn’t need to gamble much in order to get deflections and steals.
“He had 12 deflections by himself in the one quarter,” Rivers said. “And Joel was amazing, but if I was giving a game ball out it would probably be Matisse, or we would split it with those two, because I thought he was a difference-maker.
“I thought he frustrated (Ricky) Rubio, and then I thought he was phenomenal on (D’Angelo) Russell. He’s just a hell of a defender. He’s got his legs under him now, he knows what we expect of him and he’s been terrific.”
With this win, the Sixers are 4-5 on the road, meaning they need eight more victories to match last season’s total.
Waiting on Scott’s return
Mike Scott missed his seventh consecutive game with right knee swelling. Though that might not appear very significant in isolation, Rivers has mentioned several times that Scott’s absence narrows the Sixers’ options and increases the importance of Simmons and Harris staying out of foul trouble.
When Scott is available, how might Rivers’ rotation change? Perhaps Furkan Korkmaz’s minutes will be trimmed, although the Sixers seem determined to help him find a rhythm.
There should be a little less of a burden on players like Harris, who played a team-high 34 minutes Friday.
“I like one of the three — Joel, Tobias or Ben — on the floor at all times,” Rivers said. “I don’t like how we’re doing it right now, because we’re extending one of their minutes every night. I don’t like that. Without a four, we literally don’t have a choice in doing it.
“We played Furk — or whoever wants to claim the four … I think Matisse called himself the four tonight at one stretch. You play the right team, a bigger team, that’s really difficult. So I do like one of those three on the floor at all times. I think it’s good for us. We’re deep enough not to, but most games I’ll have one on the floor.”
One also wonders how Dwight Howard will be impacted. Rivers used Simmons as a small-ball center in the first half of Wednesday’s win over the Lakers and acknowledged before Friday’s game that Howard has had a subpar run recently. The veteran had three points, 10 rebounds and four fouls in 17 minutes against Minnesota.
“I’m not that concerned by it,” Rivers said. “He hasn’t played great. That happens in life, it just does, and he’ll get through it. He’s been around long enough. I thought the Lakers adjusted and went small for a second on him, which affects him. Detroit did the same thing. You can either stay big, which I do often, or sometimes you can have an adjustment. Our problem, obviously, is with Mike Scott out, we don’t have a lot of adjustments we can go to right now and that has absolutely limited us, for sure.”
Simmons at center surely won’t become the norm, although Rivers said, “it’s a look that I like.” He’s looking forward to working on it, noting the Sixers should have a rare opportunity to practice early next week.