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March 25, 2018

Sixers continue their ascent with comfortable win over Minnesota Timberwolves

When three Philadelphia starters had to return to the court with 2:52 to play in the fourth quarter, cold on the bench after leaving the game with a 29-point lead, it felt like the air had been taken out of the Wells Fargo Center's sails. Sure, this all but assured the Sixers were going to leave the floor with a victory, but a quarter of rest for the stars turned into a late cameo that annoyed everybody — including the guys who had to close the game out.

But aside from that fourth-quarter atrocity, everything came up Sixers on Saturday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. They earned a comprehensive victory over a good Western Conference team, concluding a week of beatdowns with a win over the best opponent they faced.

The story of Philadelphia's win starts, begins and basically ends with Ben Simmons' performance. The rookie guard/forward/whatever the hell we're calling him these days was magnificent against the Wolves, putting up a 15-point, 12-rebound, 13-assist triple-double that showed total control of the game.

His coach is not usually one to focus on individual accolades and likes to spread the praise around to the unsung heroes of the team, but Brett Brown came out and made a strong statement about his initiator after the game.

Let's start with, he is the stone cold Rookie of the Year. That's the first thing. He has triple-doubles in historic proportions, he just passed Magic Johnson and is behind Oscar Robertson. He just had another one tonight," said Brown. "I think it's contagious with the team, we had 33 assists as a team. If you can play defense and share the ball, you have two powerful team ingredients, really, really powerful, that's rare in the NBA. We got it — our team passes, and we play defense.

Ben is like the poster child to the passing side of it and how we want to play.

You can feel every bit of that passing influence from Simmons. In isolation, his individual passing is off the charts good. He can make passes that most players in the league wouldn't dream of attempting, hitting guys on a rope from halfway down the court.

The most important piece of that pass — you know, besides the pass itself — is Simmons directing traffic and setting up the play before it happens. The media section at the Wells Fargo Center sits in a way that we were directly behind Simmons as that play was unfolding. But none of us were quite sure what he was trying to orchestrate, and all of us were taken aback when he did the damn thing and earned Saric an opportunity at the rim.

Maybe at this point we shouldn't be. Simmons very obviously has a passing gift, and he unleashes it on opponents every single night. You aren't treated to a highlight-reel dish each evening, but he is methodical in the way he draws attention and then zips a pass to one of his guys.

"He has two things going for him. I feel most times, I see what he sees," said Brown citing his total mastery of Philadelphia's playbook. "And then he's got the strength slash guts to throw stuff where they're rockets. So he sees a few plays ahead and he has the vision, and then he at 6'10" throws darts, he really throws passes with velocity."

It takes more than velocity to do what Simmons is doing right now. With no jumper to speak of, he cut the Wolves to ribbons with pass fakes, body control, and a level of intelligence you usually don't see from rookies. 

The thing is, Simmons is the last guy to boast about his own accomplishments. He pretty firmly feels he is the Rookie of the Year, but when asked about the potential honor he gave mostly one-word answers and tried to avoid the topic. The only insight he offered came when he was asked about what makes a player — not necessarily him, I guess — a Rookie of the Year.

"For me, I'm not worried about putting up points every game. As long as we win, that's all I'm worried about. I think everything else will come along with it, but that's just not the way I play," said Simmons. "I don't need to score 30, 40 points every game. I can create 40 points by passing the ball, so that's easy to me."

His teammates have followed suit. Marco Belinelli is a shameless gunner at times — okay, most of the time — but he knows quite a bit about sharing the basketball after playing on one of the best passing teams ever, the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs. He almost pulled off a brilliant touch pass late in the third, only to be foiled at the last moment.

Passing is a skill, but the mindset is just as important. You have to trust the guy next to you, and it becomes easier to do that when you have the collective talent the Sixers do, in addition to an individual passing talent leading the way on the perimeter.

The ceiling on Simmons is yet to be determined. But if you're searching for a reason this team is hitting a new level, look no further than the passing gifts of No. 25.

Embiid vs. Towns is a joy to watch

It really is a shame we don't get to see these two guys go head-to-head more often — Minnesota is honestly close enough that they could be an Eastern Conference team — because from an effort and intensity standpoint, they bring it every time. Towns got the better of Embiid in their first meeting last season, but Philadelphia's franchise center has gotten the better of his peer in each of the matchups since.

Saturday night was a particularly emphatic victory for Embiid, who excelled on both ends of the floor. Unlike Towns, who spent the majority of his time guarding whichever power forward Philadelphia had on the floor, Embiid took on the challenge of locking down Towns on the other end.

The results were explosive. Towns came down the lane at one point in the first half and looked briefly like he might baptize Embiid. But the big fella was not in the mood to end up on an opponent's highlight reel.

Embiid made Towns work for every inch of space he earned, and was the primary reason his opponent shot 3/15 from the field on the evening. He baited KAT into fouls, never allowed him to establish good position, and dictated the tempo of the matchup on both ends.

He was complimentary of Towns following the game, but Embiid wasn't about to let an opportunity to talk spicy slide past altogether and took a slight dig at the matchup when asking if he had extra juice coming into a game involving Towns.

"He's pretty good, I have a lot of respect for him," said Embiid. "Might be a little bit [of trash talk], but it's not a one-on-one battle, because every time we play I guard him the whole game, and he doesn't. So it's not like there's extra motivation, but at the same time, I want to show I'm the best big man in the league." 

Translation: guard me, and then come talk to me.

Holy cow, that (abysmal) effort from the bench in the fourth quarter

There was some of the usual, "What is Brett Brown doing?" stuff as the lead dwindled in the fourth quarter, but Philadelphia's late collapse against Minnesota was entirely on the shoulders of the bench unit. They stunk up the joint in the nine minutes they were trusted to play on their own, and deserved to be shamed for not finding a way to kill off the game.

It's not as if Richaun Holmes, Furkan Korkmaz, T.J. McConnell and the rest of the gang were up against Minnesota's best players. They were tasked with outpacing a lineup featuring Cole Aldrich, a decrepit Aaron Brooks, Marcus Georges-Hunt, and two of Minnesota's only useful bench players, Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng. They didn't just fail to do that, they quite literally got run off the court.

Their inability to generate offense in the halfcourt was maddening, but the headless chicken act on defense was just inexcusable. You can see, once again, why the coaching staff doesn't have a lot of confidence in Richaun Holmes as a backup center. 

After McConnell and Ersan Ilysova miscommunicated on a perimeter switch, Holmes decided the best course of action was to give a diving Aldrich an open path to the rim in order to half-commit to closing on Dieng. The result was complete uselessness:

Nine minutes of this slop later, Brown had seen enough. Embiid explained that a meeting of the minds took place between himself, Brown, and some of the other starters on the bench during the run, and it was made clear they wanted to guarantee a win in their push for homecourt. Though he has been a coach focused on development in the past, Brown was not about to let this game slip for the sake of minutes for Korkmaz.

"I didn't like the way this game was feeling. And it's one of these things that this close to the end of the year, I don't feel so much at that stage in the mood of letting people have experiences," said Brown. "I want to win."

His star of the game was a little more pointed in his postgame critique.

"We don't want to go back in," added Simmons on the mentality of the starters, "we want to see our guys play and finish out the game because we know they're capable of that. To see our guys not do that, it's kind of annoying, but we got to get on top of that, and everybody has to be ready to play."

From the usually stoic Simmons, that's about as harsh as it gets. This team has no time for woeful effort, and most of this crew should get their towel-waving elbows ready for the postseason.

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