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March 08, 2023

Instant observations: Joel Embiid dominates Timberwolves to close Sixers' road trip

The Sixers had some impressive wins on their just concluded road trip.

Joel Embiid's 22-point third quarter was the highlight of an excellent Sixers performance, as Philadelphia closed out a 4-1 road trip with a 117-94 win over the Timberwolves.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers came into this game without the services of James Harden, who got the night off to rest a sore left foot. It was hard to know what to expect — would Philadelphia dig deep and pull out a win to close out the trip, or lay an egg in a situation where they had a lot of tired legs?

Joel Embiid did not really allow them to think about the latter problem. A night after the whole team decided defense was optional, Embiid showed up for a matchup with Rudy Gobert and made clear who was going to be the more impactful defensive player. And it was not the guy who won three Defensive Player of the Year awards in a four-year span from 2018-2021.

They certainly couldn't have been worse on defense than they were in Indiana, so the bar was set low coming into this game. That said, I did think you can see what happens when you remove James Harden's off-ball issues from this group, which is to say that they were mostly in the right places, even if they eventually gave up buckets to the Timberwolves. And when perimeter players were able to crack Philadelphia's first layer of defense, Embiid was always lurking on the back end, unfazed by a rolling Gobert and able to live in two worlds at once, defending lobs and entry passes while stopping drivers from getting clean looks around the basket.

Around him, the Sixers looked mostly sharp, which was true even in the case of guys who came into the day questionable. Emboldened by the play of their franchise guy, Sixers players flew around on closeouts (even too aggressively at times), pinching the Wolves along the edges of the floor. That led to a ton of tightly-contested shots for Minnesota, and when they were able to get around the closeouts, Embiid was nearly always there as the last line of defense.

Need I remind you that he's vying to be the NBA's leading scorer for a second consecutive season? A matchup against Gobert would have been a knockdown, drag-out fight as recently as two years ago, and it was that sort of battle in 2021, with a Sixers vs. Jazz game forcing Embiid to reach deep in his bag to beat Gobert's Jazz in a meeting back in Philly. It was much more effortless this time around — even with the offense slowing down and junking up without Harden, Embiid just tortured Gobert as a shooter all night long, dominating from the elbows and not allowing Gobert to have much of an impact on the game defensively.

Forget the elbows for a second, though. There have been quite a few teams over the years who decided to bet on challenging Embiid as a shooter, most notably the Celtics in his early years, hoping they could bait him into taking a lot of threes and keep him away from the bucket. There was probably a point in this game, maybe after Embiid's third three of the night, where the Wolves should have started sending somebody to hug up on him as he loaded up from three. But they didn't, and so he continued to bring the pain.

It got so bad for Minnesota in the third quarter that they abandoned all hope of keeping Gobert on Embiid. The French big man showed no real interest in meeting Embiid out by the three-point line, so the Wolves opted to guard Embiid with Kyle Anderson after a timeout. Embiid managed to come out of that stoppage and immediately hit a jumper over Anderson (and a roaming Gobert) without looking fazed at all.

Embiid has put together a ton of dominant performances this year, but this one exists in rare company, a night where he didn't need free throws and physical dominance to put up a monster line. This was just Embiid being more skilled and silky smooth than anybody else on the floor. The Wolves were chasing ghosts all night, leaning on pass fakes and jumping at jab steps and pump fakes. As soon as he had space, the Wolves were cooked.  They started sending doubles as the game wore on, and Embiid beat those with speed, including on this nasty spin move in the third quarter that took your breath away.

In the third quarter of this game, Embiid scored 22 points. The Minnesota Timberwolves scored 23 as a collective. If that doesn't spell out how big of an ass whooping he handed these guys, nothing will.

• Tyrese Maxey's reps as a lead guard without James Harden have often looked quite shaky, due to his limitations as a creator for others as the lead ballhandler. But the Sixers didn't ask him to be James Harden on a night off for their assist leader, and they simply capitalized on all of the things that make Maxey an exciting prospect. Novel concept, yeah?

This is true of many teams around the league, but Minnesota was not prepared to deal with Maxey's speed in halfcourt or transition. With Gobert ultra-concerned about stopping (or slowing down) Embiid, the Wolves' center was often in no man's land when the Sixers ran actions (primarily dribble handoffs) to force Gobert to deal with Maxey. Minnesota did not want Gobert sagging off of young Maxey, who has been on a heater from downtown lately, but playing up on him only resulted in Maxey blowing by him and scoring at the rim. The closest Gobert came to stopping him on those drives was goaltending a shot that had already hit the backboard.

Perimeter players didn't do much better against Maxey. Kyle Anderson is nicknamed "Slow Mo" for a reason, and there might not be a bigger discrepancy in pace leaguewide than the one we saw when those two got in foot races on Tuesday. By punishing these links in the Minnesota chain, Maxey was able to get off to a good start in this one in spite of a rocky shooting night from deep.

By the time this one ended, you would have had no idea he started slow from deep. Brought in to stabilize the second unit after three consecutive turnovers to open the fourth quarter, Maxey re-entered the game and slammed the door shut on Minnesota. It felt like every jumper he made in this game was a backbreaking three late in the clock, the Wolves finally finding something that worked only for young Maxey to shoot them out of it. And as we've seen many times before, once this kid gets hot, you better just pray he stops shooting for no good reason, because Maxey started gripping and ripping once he found the zone.

He has rediscovered the groove and the touch that endeared him to this fanbase, and Maxey sustaining that in a game where he didn't have Harden taking responsibility off of his plate is a wonderful thing to see. 

There were some hiccups for Maxey along the way, most notably a pair of failed lobs to Paul Reed during a stretch in the second quarter. But given his success as a passer in those situations in general, and the value his pace provided the team, I'd just write that off as an adjustment that he'll need to make playing alongside Reed. KYP, and all of that good stuff.

Maxey was more than a worthy sidekick for Embiid in this game, helping Philadelphia close out a road trip with a solid victory. Awesome outing.

• Honestly, the rest of these guys outside of Embiid and Maxey were not left with a whole lot to do, and I would argue that made their play more encouraging. There were long stretches of this game where they didn't touch the ball or have much to do on offense, with this one turning into the Embiid show. Staying connected and involved on defense and the glass is hard when that's the case, and I thought the group managed that well.

Every time Embiid seemed to have a cold stretch — and by a cold stretch, I mean a single miss — somebody managed to pick him up with a play to make up for it. A Tobias Harris steal here, a De'Anthony Melton effort play there, guys just popped up in the right places all night long, staying focused on the task at hand even when it would have been easy to turn into bystanders. 

Nothing overwhelming, but when you have a star playing like a star, you don't need the rest of the group to be overwhelming.

• De'Anthony Melton made a transition layup, I swear it happened.

Jokes aside, he had a good night shooting the ball, which is always worth celebrating.

• The Sixers finding a way to succeed in the minutes without Embiid has often been chalked up as a product of staggering, and Harden has made a difference with those groups to be sure. But they didn't have him against the Wolves, and the bench lineups held up just fine. Philadelphia is rounding into form as a group.

• I guess Furkan Korkmaz is the human victory cigar now? 

The Bad

• Well, this game is a good illustration of why Danuel House Jr. is not in the every night rotation. He sprinted to close out on Anthony Edwards at halfcourt late in the first quarter for no reason at all, and then he had a slapstick comedy moment late in the third, falling all over himself while trying (and failing) to get up a stepback three from the corner.

He basically had to play minutes in this one, but moving forward, no House in minutes without Harden to control things.

• The Sixers didn't have much to offer against Anthony Edwards in this game, but I suppose when you stop basically everyone else, it doesn't matter.

• "But Doc's rotations!" are low-hanging fruit on any given night, and I get that he probably wanted to give Embiid and Maxey some extra rest after playing the night before. That said, no excuse to have a Milton/McDaniels/House/Niang/Reed lineup on the floor at any time, let alone in both halves of the game. The results they got in that look were about as predictable as it gets.

The Ugly

• Fifth game in seven nights is about as close to a scheduled loss as you're going to get. I sort of reject "schedule loss" as a premise in general, but what a stupid road trip this was. The Sixers played three games in four nights two different times. Not sure the person who plotted this path out has ever looked at a map or traveled in their lives.

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