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December 13, 2017

The Sixers had Joel Embiid in Minnesota, and that was enough

Sixers NBA

Down Robert Covington and staring down the barrel at a potential five-game losing streak, the Sixers did everything they could to cough away a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night. They piled up a season-high 24 turnovers, giving the ball away on what felt like every other possession.

Yet there they were, after 48 minutes of regulation and an additional five minutes of overtime chaos, leaving the frozen tundra with a 118-112 victory. Against all rational belief, the Sixers shrugged off their own ineptitude and clutch Minnesota buckets to pick up a big win. So how'd they get there?

To put it simply, they hopped on the broad shoulders of Joel Embiid. The big fella racked up 28 points, 12 rebounds, and a career-high eight assists against the Wolves, and perhaps best of all, he played 39+ minutes on the evening. This is very reductive analysis, but the longer good players are on the court, the bigger impact they can have on the game.

No stretch was more important to the Sixers than the final four minutes of regulation. With 3:50 to play, Embiid picked up his fifth foul on a Taj Gibson shot attempt, and was just one wrong step away from getting booted. From then on—one bad turnover excluded—he played with poise and avoided putting himself in harm's way while still dominating the game.

Patient Embiid is a much different player than the guy who gets too obsessed with individual matchups, too concerned with barreling through the lane and getting his points. He found Dario Saric for a pair of late threes out of the post, and his running mate rewarded him for making the right basketball play.

The Sixers absolutely need Embiid to go into attack mode from time-to-time, but it's just as important that he takes advantage of the extra coverage opposing teams send his way. When doubles are coming at him, that means one of his teammates is open somewhere on the court, and he has the height to find those guys if he sets his mind to it.

What stands out when Embiid is looking to pass is the nature of how he is handling the ball. His dribbling is more methodical, there are less crossovers and fancy dribble attempts, and he works on poking and prodding at the defense until it collapses. Ben Simmons didn't pick up his first bucket of the game until the final two minutes, and it was a result of Embiid being ready to strike as soon as Simmons made an impactful cut.

Although many were happy to tear down Embiid's "rookie" label last year by virtue of the two years he spent learning within an NBA program, what you saw on Tuesday night was part of the maturation of a guy who has actually been able to experience real, extended NBA minutes. The Sixers had a national TV game against the Wolves last season, and Minnesota absolutely blew them out of the water. Karl-Anthony Towns dominated Embiid in that matchup, and it was clear Embiid was pressing to make an impression on the big stage.

This is not to say he had a perfect game a year later, but you saw a player with a much better understanding of who he is, and how he can use that against another team. One play that's becoming a staple of Embiid's arsenal is the fake dribble hand-off. The Sixers use him as a screener and passer in these situations frequently, and as teams have started overcommitting to playing the ballhandler, every once in a while he'll hold onto the ball and head toward the basket with a head of steam.

Individual plus-minus is mostly useless to track game-by-game impact for players, but Embiid's +19 against Minnesota was a perfect representation of what he brought to the table. He continues to grow more comfortable as the alpha dog of this Sixers team, and if he can learn to play under control more consistently, there will be absolutely no way to stop him.

Odds and ends

• Embiid's performance helps overshadow what I thought was a pretty suspect performance from Brett Brown. I firmly believe he's a good coach and don't get the usual animosity toward him, but I thought his lineup configuration put the Sixers in a bind for a lot of Tuesday evening.

One sequence where it particularly stood out: crunch time of the fourth quarter. Brown went to some ultra-big lineups against a Minnesota team that tends to do the same, which isn't a horrible idea in theory. But it led to some downright ugly matchups at times, and the Sixers only just managed to survive in spite of it.

With Embiid, Saric, and Richaun Holmes all on the court to close the game, the Sixers did not really have the personnel to repeatedly chase guys out to the three-point line. That can be overlooked if you use that height to end possessions with defensive rebounds, but they couldn't even do that, allowing Minnesota three really good looks from deep on one horrible sequence.

And while it's not a catch-all excuse for their horrid ball security, Brown's lineup selection was a factor in the number of turnovers the Sixers had. Yes, teams put shooters on the floor because three points > two points, but they also do so because opening the floor up makes life so much easier inside the arc for your players who operate there. The Wolves were able to play basically their entire defensive unit below the free-throw line, which cut off Simmons' driving lanes and crowded Embiid's post-ups.

This sort of thing ultimately gets glossed over because they won, but Brown probably has to trust one of his bench wings a little more. Maybe that's the biggest takeaway of the evening: beyond Robert Covington, Brown doesn't have a whole lot of faith in his backup wing rotation, and he'd rather ugly up the game if given the choice.

• While Holmes' presence helped complicate life for Simmons to a degree, he also added a wrinkle to the game that the other bigs are not capable of. Holmes' ability to get down the floor and score in transition sets him apart from even Embiid, and on a night where Simmons couldn't get much going, he looked for Holmes in transition early and often.

The scouting report on Towns (and the Wolves more generally) highlights an inability or unwillingness to hoof it back in transition. This is tailor-made for a guy like Holmes, who is off to the races as soon as the ball reaches Simmons. Look how quickly he gets down the floor after the missed free throw, and Simmons hits him on a rope for a slam.

The connection between those two dates back to Summer League, when they hooked up on a fair amount of lobs and finishes in traffic against lesser competition. Simmons is hyperaware that Holmes catch radius allows him to take bigger risks with his passes, and more often than not the big guy makes due with whatever is sent his way.

It's hard to even catch up with them at times, including for the broadcast team. NBCSP could barely come back from the cut-away before Holmes was tossing in acrobatic finishes in transition.

This sort of thing is why you want Holmes in the rotation. He comes with his warts, but he forces teams to play with a different sense of urgency and draws them out of their comfort zone. There is no ability to rest, and on a night when Tom Thibodeau predictably ran his starters into the ground, that makes all the difference.

• A brief word on Simmons: I'm okay with the performance he had against Minnesota. It was not good overall, and you're starting to see how the absence of a jumper can limit his impact.

But when it mattered most and the team needed him to come up with a way to manufacture points, Simmons got the job done. Instead of standing in the corner and hoping Embiid would come up with something, Simmons fought to get open away from the ball, and scored some of the biggest baskets of the night by providing Embiid with a timely outlet.

That's a task he needs to get used to, especially because Markelle Fultz is going to enter the picture in the near future. But beyond that, I think it's an important data point for how we view Simmons' basketball mindset. There have been accusations and criticisms of his, for lack of a better phrase, "basketball character" dating back to LSU. When his team failed to make the NCAA tournament—which seems insane now—it was viewed as a commentary on his "will to win," and other equally arbitrary measures of prospect value.

You would expect a guy with that rep to fold after a tough game shooting and taking care of the ball. Simmons did not, and the Sixers called his number with under a minute to play in regulation. He did not let them down.

Playing through adversity is part of the gig, and Simmons showed you he was capable of doing so on Tuesday night.

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