Game Preview: 76ers @ Timberwolves
Two of the top three picks from the 2015 NBA Draft will be on display Monday, when the 76ers (0-14) take on the Minnesota Timberwolves (5-8) at 8:00 PM EST at Target Center. The contest represents the first time that Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns will go head-to-head in the regular season. Okafor, whom the Sixers chose third in the draft, and Towns, who went first overall, have both started every game for his respective team. This contest will be the third of six on the Sixers’ current road trip.
Against a seasoned opponent with championship aspirations on Saturday, the Sixers nearly left Miami with their first victory of the year. The Heat, though, received a superb performance from mainstay Dwyane Wade, who carried his club through the first half, and set-up teammates for vital buckets in the closing minutes. The Sixers lead by as many as 17 points in Saturday’s first half, building a sizable advantage through hustle, aggressive defense play, and fluid offensive execution. Isaiah Canaan notched a team-best 22 points, and Nerlens Noel used back-to-back field goals to put the Sixers ahead by 11 points with 7:14 to go. Miami ended the evening on a decisive 20-4 run, walking away with the 96-91 triumph.
Minnesota’s lone victory over its last seven outings actually came at Miami’s American Airlines Arena last Tuesday. The Timberwolves’ recent rut follows an inspired 4-2 start to the season, which began three days after the death of their head coach Flip Saunders. Saunders, who won 654 games over the course of a 17-year career on the sidelines, was not only a respected NBA veteran, but viewed as a key figure in the history of the Timberwolves. He led the franchise to its only eight playoff appearances, all of which occurred during an eight-year span from 1997 through 2004. He returned to the Twin Cities in 2013, initially as the Wolves’ President of Basketball Operations. A year later, he assumed head coaching duties as well, and, in his dual role, oversaw the additions of Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Towns, three important components that make up Minnesota’s budding young nucleus. Former Timberwolves forward Sam Mitchell was tabbed interim head coach in September, when Saunders’ cancer worsened.
The Sixers had Minnesota’s number last season, sweeping the two-game series. Their victories snapped a three-year losing streak to the Wolves. In beating the Timberwolves, 85-77, at Target Center on December 3rd, the Sixers used a decisive 12-2 run to finish the game, and subsequently pick up their first win of the season. Nearly two months later, Nerlens Noel tallied 14 points, six rebounds, three assists, four steals, and six blocks in helping lead the Sixers past Minnesota, 103-94.
Through the first month of the 2015-2016 NBA season, no two rookies have stood out more consistently than the Sixers’ Jahlil Okafor, and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (although New York’s Kristaps Porzingis has been coming on strong as of late). Here’s a side-by-side statistical comparison of the two first-year centers slated to meet Monday night:
Of Okafor’s 14 appearances, his outputs against Boston (26 pts, 7 reb), Chicago (21 pts, 15 reb), and Toronto (26 pts, 7 reb) are among a handful of highlights. Town’s best effort might have been in his second outing, when Minnesota rolled Denver, 98-75. He burst for a personal-best 28 points, hauled in 14 rebounds, and turned aside four blocked shots. His plus / minus rating of 15, which he would equal three games later, was then a personal-best as well.
On the latest NBA.com Rookie Ladder, Towns holds the top spot, with Okafor ranking second on the list.
With Karl-Anthony Towns in the mix, Minnesota appears as if it will again be in position to submit a strong entrant to the NBA Rookie of the Year race. Andrew Wiggins, the 2014 number one pick that was obtained in the trade that sent Kevin Love from the Timberwolves to the Cleveland Cavaliers, took home the honor last year, becoming the first player in Minnesota history to receive the award. While Wiggins acquitted himself well with 16.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.1 assists, he also impressively managed to appear in all 82 of the Wolves’ games. Through 12 contests this fall, the 20-year old Toronto native has already shown signs of offensive progress. Logging about two minutes less per game than he did in his first campaign, Wiggins is generating 4.6 more points. He’ll enter Monday’s match-up with a streak of five consecutive 20-point performances, the second-longest such streak of his career. Wiggins also delivered back-to-back 30-point games at Chicago and at Atlanta two and a half weeks ago.
Through a combination of personnel tweaks and improving health, the Sixers have seen their bench production pick up two games into their road trip. With Nerlens Noel utilized as a reserve on Friday, the Sixers’ second-stringers combined to manufacture 37 points, outscoring their Charlotte counterparts by four. Then, the next night in Miami, Isaiah Canaan and Robert Covington both stepped in with substantial contributions, pairing up for 43 of the Sixers’ season-high 47 bench points. By comparison, the Heat reserves accounted for 26 points. The Sixers’ 84 total bench points over the last two contests is their highest total in consecutive games this season.
Sixers Health Report:
Richaun Holmes (hamstring)
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Radio - 97.5 FM The Fanatic (and additional Sixers Radio Network affiliate stations)
Video Stream - https://www.csnphilly.com / NBC Sports Live Extra