In Review | Digging Deep, Resilient Group Returns Home With Win
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - At the end of a gruelling trip, the 76ers battled.
They battled without one of their starters, despite getting one back.
They battled through turnovers, which, from the jump, were a persistent, pesky bugaboo.
They battled a similarly young, up-and-coming club, one with its own visions of taking a significant step forward this season.
For their fight, the Sixers earned the right to return home winners, 118-112, over the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime. That’s all that mattered.
The four-game losing streak was snuffed out, and a stretch of the schedule that required the Sixers to travel nearly 4,000 miles in four days finished.
Brett Brown’s group dug deep.
“We found a way,” said the fifth-year head coach. “The fact that we found a way to stay together and grind out a win, we needed that, and I’m glad for the guys.”
Little can be said or written about Joel Embiid without associating him to the idea of “massive.” It’s a quality that embodies almost everything about him - his build, his presence, his talent, his personality. After missing the first two tilts of the Sixers’ trek, the big man returned to action Tuesday at Target Center, and his impact was considerable.
Logging a career-high 39 minutes, Embiid delivered a weighty box line underscored by 28 points (8-16 fg, 1-1 3fg, 11-12 ft), 12 rebounds, and a personal-best 8 assists. His straightaway 3-point swish with 99 seconds to go in O.T. essentially sealed the Sixers’ victory.
“We needed this,” Embiid said. “We lost four games, so we needed this pretty bad. I was excited to come back. My goal is always to bring a lot of energy, obviously use my skill, but at the end of the day, just playing hard.”
In the hours before Tuesday’s tip-off, Brown still wasn’t sure whether Embiid would be able to play. The 23-year old’s efforts exceeded expectations. His double-double was No. 14 in 22 appearances.
“I would not have expected him to play as well as he played, or as many minutes as he played when I felt his body language at the start of the game,” said Brown. “Contrary to that feeling, you end up looking at the stat line he produced, he obviously was massive.”
“I feel pretty good,” Embiid said afterwards. “I pushed through it.
Embiid wasn’t alone in providing the Sixers with clutch contributions, but he certainly was a major factor. With the Sixers behind by 6 points, 90-84, with three minutes, 22 seconds to go in the four quarter, here’s how Embiid proceeded to catalyze the crux of the team’s comeback:
• Assisted on a Dario Saric 3-pointer, 88-90 (2:48, 4th Q)
• Assisted on another Saric 3-pointer, 94-92 (1:45, 4th Q)
• Assisted on a Ben Simmons dunk, 96-94 (1:17, 4th Q)
• Hit a pair of free throws, 100-100 (0:14, 4th Q)
• Stuck an 18-foot jump shot, 103-100 (3:50, OT)
• Assisted on a second Simmons dunk, 108-102 (2:03, OT)
• Hit a 3-pointer, 111-104 (1:04, OT)
• Hit a pair of free throws, 114-107 (0:49, OT)
Embiid’s imprint on Tuesday’s outcome was undeniable, as his telling plus-19 rating revealed.
“It’s just different, honestly,” said Simmons, when asked about having Embiid available. “Now you have the big guy you can go to in the post, the spacing is a little different. It’s a big help also, so there’s a lot of positives to it.”
Simmons, in his own right, rose to the occasion in crunch time, too. Although he acted as a productive facilitator the whole night, he headed into the final two minutes of regulation without a point. His two-handed slam shattering the 94-94 tie changed that emphatically.
Simmons said his goal is to be a reliable option when games are hanging in the balance.
“Yeah, definitely. Make the right plays, find whoever’s hot, get the ball to the right person, and just make the right play.”
Before Tuesday’s fourth period drew to a close, Simmons spun in a go-ahead reverse, at 98-97, with 32 seconds left. He later added the overtime dunk, plus a free throw to tally 7 points (3-8 fg, 1-3 ft), 3 rebounds, and 8 assists in all.
“You just stay with our game plan,” said Simmons. “I told the guys, ‘If we get the first two buckets [of overtime], we’re going to win this game.’ That’s what happened.”
Down 3-and-D specialist Robert Covington (back) for a second consecutive contest, the Sixers turned to an even larger starting line-up than usually, rolling out for the first time this season the grouping of Simmons, JJ Redick (26 pts, 3 3fg, 11-11 ft), Saric (14 pts, 8 reb), Richaun Holmes (15 pts, 11 reb), and Embiid. Minnesota boasts its own stable of tall, long, athletic first-stringers, so match-ups, for the most part, fit.
The biggest issue the Sixers confronted Tuesday was ball security. Through 12 minutes of action, they had committed 8 turnovers, while forcing none. That three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, obtained in an off-season trade with the Chicago Bulls, got going complicated matters even more. He had 18 points by the break, staking the Wolves to a 51-48 lead.
The Sixers’ strong start to the second half set a back-and-forth pace that carried through to the conclusion of the third quarter. Butler, however, netted the first 6 points of the fourth to give Minnesota momentum.
An alley-oop from Jeff Teague to Karl-Anthony Towns, preceded by the Sixers’ 23rd turnover (they committed 26 total), pushed the margin to 9 points, 86-77.
“They play their hearts out, and you just keep squirting the ball around the gym,” Brown said of the youthful Sixers.
They were shooting the ball well, inside the arc, beyond it, and from the free throw stripe. Yet, because of turnovers, they faced an uphill climb.
“The dots don’t connect, and you immediately zoom in on the turnovers. It’s part of having a young team, it’s part of playing fast,” Brown said.
As valuable as it is to have a gifted point man and dominant center to lean on, so too does it help to have a dependable jump shooter. Enter Redick.
The veteran used a 3-pointer and 23-foot 2-point jump shot to whittle the deficit to two possessions. From there, a legitimate opportunity was born, and the Sixers capitalized.
“JJ came out and hit a massive 3-point shot, which was crucial,” said Brown. “That, to me, was the tipping point of when things started to turn. I thought the execution our guys were able to show during crucial parts of the game enabled us to get the win.”
For the night, the Sixers shot an even 50.0 percent, while converting 11 of 26 3-point tries. They outscored Minnesota by 8 from the free throw line, and overcame a 31-11 disparity in points off turnovers.
The Sixers’ reserve corps also stepped up. Trevor Booker, for the third time in as many games as a Sixer, reached double-figures, with 12 points (6-8 fg), 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. T.J. McConnell, after being on the shelf for back-to-back games (left shoulder), gave it a go, and posted 7 points (3-4 fg), 6 rebounds, and 2 assists.
Tuesday’s win was very much the byproduct of a collective push.
“Winning on the road in the NBA is really tough,” McConnell said. “The fact that we were able to be resilient and come out with this one is huge for us.”
Butler topped all players with 38 points (15-33 fg, 3-9 3fg, 5-5 ft). Towns manufactured a double-double with 19 points (6-16 fg, 0-4 3fg) and 16 boards. Andrew Wiggins notched 20 points, but did so on 8 for 24 shooting.
After a left shoulder injury kept T.J. McConnell on the sidelines the Sixers’ previous two games, he came out Tuesday with a purposeful approach. Not only did the third-year point guard stick some early jump shots and keep the ball moving, he managed to link up with an admirer of his - the equally gritty Trevor Booker - on this first-half sequence.
Trevor for two. Book it. pic.twitter.com/6ms8rNTYkZ
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 13, 2017
In respect to game play, the Sixers will be idle the next two nights, before returning to the national state Friday in a home match-up with the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC is off to a bumpy start this season, sporting a record of 12-14. Russell Westbrook has been putting up respectable numbers, averaging 23.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game. Carmelo Anthony, acquired in a September trade, accounts for 18.0 points per game, while Paul George, another off-season pick, scores 20.6 points per night.