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October 30, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers beat up the Timberwolves, before and after Embiid-Towns fight

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Sixers-fight-timberwolves_103019_usat Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) is held to the ground by Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) after a fight with center Joel Embiid (not pictured) during the third quarter.

The Sixers earned a decisive victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night, with Ben Simmons forcing Karl-Anthony Towns to tap out... I mean, with Philadelphia coasting to a 117-95 victory on their home floor to move to 4-0.

Here's what I saw on Wednesday night. There will be much more to come.

The Good

• Philadelphia's best trait so far this year is not necessarily that they're locking down teams from beyond the arc, it's that they're funneling shots toward the players who you'd most want to let it fly from deep. It's a function of several things that have changed this year vs. last — tweaks to scheme, changes in personnel, and a commitment on the defensive end from everyone in the rotation.

In the first quarter against Minnesota, the Sixers had a very clear objective — force the ball toward Treveon Graham. Philadelphia handed Al Horford the Karl-Anthony Towns assignment to start the game with Embiid checking Graham, and what that really meant is that Embiid got to hang back and play free safety on defense, daring Graham to shoot. He obliged, and it led to some downright hilarious outcomes — there was a possession where the Sixers basically left him free on a pick-and-pop with Towns, and Graham traveled without anybody really guarding him.

This effect was so pronounced, by the way, that Wolves head coach Ryan Saunders changed their starting lineup at halftime, putting Jake Layman on the floor for Graham. Philly responded by aggressively attacking Layman on post-ups, producing a couple of easy buckets to start the second half.

When you can dictate how teams play and who teams play through, that is a very powerful thing. 

• I don't know if Ben Simmons will ever overtake Embiid as the crown jewel of the defense, but his switchability from night-to-night is pretty special. 

It honestly feels mean for him to check guys like Wolves point guard Jeff Teague. Just ask Teague — he took a frustration foul 94 feet from the hoop on a second-quarter possession because, after working really hard to get a look at the rim late in the clock, he found himself in no man's land with Simmons' length bothering him, and he bear-hugged Simmons after the rebound fell into his arms.

• While we haven't seen the Sixers able to do the same amount of dictating of matchups on the other end, we have certainly seen them lean into their identity as a big, mean team. If you're the sort of person who has been waiting for the return of the post-up at the NBA level, congratulations, this team is going to deliver.

Frankly, there were times when it made my eyes bleed because the Sixers needed to move the ball more, but if you keep getting matchups you like, I understand and support it. If Andrew Wiggins is guarding Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons? Go nuts. If Shabazz Napier is trying to body up with Tobias Harris? Exploit that all day. There's no sense in being a big team if you aren't going to play like one.

Another offensive advantage that size gives you is the ability to hit on plays over the top. We came into the year expecting Al Horford to hit a ton of cutters as he always does, but the hi-lo action has worked with Horford on the receiving end, too, from suspects as unlikely as Tobias Harris.

• Furkan Korkmaz and James Ennis have probably been Philadelphia's two most maligned role players so far this season, and I thought both guys acquitted themselves well on Wednesday night.

They got there in very different ways. Ennis replicated the best of what he showed during the Sixers' playoff run last season, crashing the offensive glass hard and keeping plays alive as a "go guy" to create second-chance points. 

And while Korkmaz didn't look much better defensively than he has all year, his confidence was way, way up on the offensive end, and he gave Philly a nice offensive spark off of the bench, doing damage as a spot-up shooter and cutter.

When the Sixers' deep bench players are playing well, they are going to be tough to beat.

• I've been a bit down on Harris so far this year outside of his big night in Detroit, but I thought he showed how dangerous he can be in Philadelphia's starting five even when he's not shooting the lights out. Against opponents who want to counter Philly's size with small-ball, he's going to draw a lot of matchups where he has a height and weight advantage.

If there's an area I'm not concerned about with Harris long-term, it's when he's operating out of the mid-post. While the value of the mid-range is what it is, there will always be value in being able to throw the ball to somebody to get a tough two with time dwindling down on the clock.

• Joel Embiid was having a pretty good game before he got thrown out (more on that in a minute), so I suppose there's that. Another victory for the big man in the eternal war against Karl-Anthony Towns.

• Matisse Thybulle had four steals and two blocks in 18 minutes. That was before the third quarter was even over. The kid is a machine.

• We can all have different opinions on the fight that took place, but I think everyone can identify with Mike Scott on some level.

The Bad

• Though it looked like the Sixers could ride the crowd energy to victory after the big man scuffle in the third quarter, they let Minnesota hang around for much longer than they should have following the Embiid-Towns fight. Though Embiid is a better player, the Sixers at least have a quality backup to stand in for him when he's out of the game, while the Wolves threw out an assortment of mediocre big men to stand in for their franchise player.

The leaks in the defense with role players on the floor got a lot more noticeable without Embiid there to clean everything up, which was disappointing after the entire team got off to a flying start.

• Al Horford does a ton to help out this team, no doubt, but it sure would be nice if the man could rediscover his shooting touch from deep. No one is expecting him to be Ray Allen from deep, but he's gotta find the touch.

Let's shine a light on some of the positives though — Horford had a quintessential Al Horford game, filling up the box score all over the place and serving as the adult in the room when things got testy in the third quarter. He was a pest on the offensive glass, contributing to a huge rebounding disparity between the two teams, and his younger teammates badly needed a calming influence, which Horford was more than happy to provide.

Look, there's not a lot of bad things to say about this game, they led comfortably for basically 3/4 of the game.

The Ugly

• Boy, where do we even begin with the Joel Embiid vs. Karl-Anthony Towns scuffle? 

Towns spent the days leading into this game downplaying the importance of the matchup as a media creation, but Embiid sure seemed to treat it very seriously. He went right at Towns' chest from the opening whistle, and while he wasn't always successful, he just kept coming. Embiid started getting the better of him in the second half, and tensions started to brew when he flexed at Towns after taking him into the weight room early in the third quarter.

But it all came to a head after Embiid doubled KAT with Simmons on a later possession, and as the two jawed with the Sixers running the break, it eventually came to blows, with Towns attempting to throw a haymaker that missed, to the good fortune of all involved.

Any commentary/analysis on what transpired from there, I will leave to you all for now, as it is hard to watch a basketball game and analyze fight tape at the same time. But there will be more on this after the game — including from the league office, who I suspect will be handing out a suspension or few after this one.

Scratch that, one final thought — I don't think Embiid's shadowboxing after the ejections were handed down is going to help his case with the league. Absolutely hilarious and another reason why Philly adores him, but certainly not the political move. 


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