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.
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. Sometimes in the moment you need it you will, meaning guys may have great shots the entire night and the ball just doesn’t go in. 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 happen eventually. The Sixers needed to compete on defense, and they deserve credit for doing so.
With this win, the Sixers are 4-5 on the road, meaning they only 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 Tobias 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. One also wonders how Dwight Howard will be impacted. Rivers used Ben 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.