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November 22, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers fall to Timberwolves without Joel Embiid

The Sixers dropped their second straight, 112-99, having to go without Joel Embiid and with little answer for T'Wolves star Anthony Edwards.

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Maxey Conley 11.22.23 Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports

Tyrese Maxey and the Sixers fell short against Minnesota Wednesday night without Joel Embiid.

In the second half of a home-road back-to-back, the Sixers headed to Minnesota Wednesday night for a matchup with the 10-4 Timberwolves. However, they were shorthanded, as reigning NBA MVP Joel Embiid missed his first game of the season. 

It came back to bite the Sixers, whose performance looked like that of an undermanned team in a 112-99 defeat. 

Here is what jumped out from the loss:

First Quarter 

• Embiid missed his first game of the season after playing 41 minutes Tuesday night, with the team designating his injury as hip soreness – which popped up on the injury report last week and lingered for a few games. This is likely just as much about giving Embiid some much-needed rest as it is about the hip soreness. Sixers head coach Nick Nurse indicated after Tuesday's game that the team would re-evaluate their plan for Embiid to play in both legs of the back-to-back. In the end, they opted for him to sit. 

• Nurse made a surprising decision when it came to replacing Embiid in the starting lineup. The Sixers' starting center against Minnesota's massive front line was not backup center Paul Reed, or even third-string center Mo Bamba. Nurse opted to start Marcus Morris Sr., a natural power forward, in the middle. The likely rationale: keeping Reed on the bench enables the team to keep their substitution patterns mostly consistent, and the threat of Morris' jumper would be a challenge for the Timberwolves' bigs.

• It was an absolutely brutal start for the Sixers in this one, who were dominated by Minnesota on both ends of the floor. It somewhat resembled the prior night's loss to Cleveland, in which they were the much smaller and less physical team. That discrepancy in physicality was apparent once again.

• In a sea of poor developments, the Sixers at least got some good early minutes from Reed, who grabbed three offensive rebounds – one of which was on an impressive put-back dunk – and blocked a pair of shots. Nurse was likely overthinking this one. Just start your best player!

Second Quarter

• It very much felt like this was headed for a 48-minute blowout. But the Sixers stepped up in a major way and worked their way back into the game with an admirable effort in the second quarter. They were able to lock in and play cohesively defensively, and on offense, they were simply knocking down the shots that had to go in. 

• The second-quarter star on offense: Tobias Harris, who was able to get in a fantastic rhythm in the mid-range game and use convincing pump-fakes to draw fouls and shoot free throws. His rock-solid, consistent play continues to help the Sixers in a major way. With Embiid out and Tyrese Maxey not at his best early on, it was Harris who was mostly responsible for the Sixers' offensive strides from quarter to quarter.

• The star on defense: Robert Covington, who, per the usual, was able to utilize his terrific hands and length to make things difficult for Minnesota drivers and finishers. Covington had the team's best plus-minus in the first half by far -- this is not always a true indicator of quality of play, but it tracks here. Covington was outstanding in the first half despite only scoring one point.

Third Quarter

• Giving credit where it's due: until he got into foul trouble, Morris gave the Sixers a substantial lift early in the third quarter. He knocked down jumper after jumper and converted an and-one, providing the exact sort of offensive spark that Nurse was likely hoping for when he inserted Morris into the starting lineup. The Sixers repeatedly ran two-man pick-and-roll actions with Maxey and Morris that opened up open looks for the four-turned-five, who poured in 11 points in the quarter.

• Reed was excellent in the third quarter as well, particularly on the defensive end, where he was able to thread the needle between being aggressive enough to create havoc but not aggressive enough to get whistled for any more foul calls, as Nurse opted to give him a long stretch of playing time with four fouls already in the books.

• One reason the Sixers were able to hang around for so long: De'Anthony Melton, who by the end of the quarter had taken nine free throws and made every single one of them. Melton's three-point shooting has reverted back to its typically reliable nature, but he is also gradually improving as a driver. He will never be too good of a finisher, but he's gotten better there and has continued to get to the free-throw line more than he ever has before.

Fourth Quarter

• The Sixers' lack of size without Embiid once again was exposed late in this game, with the Wolves flexing their muscles en route to a win during the entire fourth quarter. Their two big men, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, were both very good, particularly Gobert, who gave them efficient play on offense and his usual stout defense. 

• Mo Bamba did not enter this game until the final moments when the outcome had already been decided, and it begs the question: what is his path to minutes at this point? If he can't get into the game when Embiid is out and the first- and second-string centers spend most of the game in foul trouble, all against a team that essentially starts two centers and has another good one coming off the bench in Naz Reid, when will he play?

• This game belonged to rising superstar Anthony Edwards, who was on absolute fire from the opening tip until the final buzzer. The fourth-year scoring aficionado knocked down tough shot after tough shot against what was largely good defense from the Sixers. This one is not on them, sometimes you have to tip your cap to an elite player. Edwards is that guy.