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January 29, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers overcome rough start in blowout win over Timberwolves

Behind 37 points from Joel Embiid in only 27 minutes of action, the Sixers shook off a rough start on offense and picked up a blowout 118-94 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. A solid start to a brief road trip for Philadelphia.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Whether it was because his back was bothering him or just a rough night in the midst of a long season, Joel Embiid could not buy a bucket for most of the first half. That was the case for most of the team, as the Sixers built a house of bricks in a tight 24 minutes with one of the worst teams in the league.

Following in the footsteps of the big guy, the Sixers got it done the old-fashioned way by getting to the line over and over again during the first half, and more importantly, cashing in at an elite clip while they were there. Embiid led the way with 12/12 from the stripe before halftime arrived, with the Sixers knocking down 20/22 at the line collectively, getting contributions from Ben Simmons, Shake Milton, all the way through to Dwight Howard, who had one of their only two misses of the half.

On the other end of the floor, the Sixers weren't exactly up against the '96 Bulls but they kept their defensive intensity high in order to prevent the cold start from putting them in a huge hole. Again, this was a total team effort — Embiid was the guy anchoring from the backline, but there was a Danny Green steal here, a Matisse Thybulle deflection there, tight defense from Ben Simmons on D'Angelo Russell and good attention to detail from the whole group.

Up against a bad team missing their best player, I think it was fair to expect Philly to come in and punch them out quickly and decisively. But rather than getting mad about them missing a lot of quality looks early, I think it's more appropriate to focus on how they responded by buckling down and just waiting for the dam to burst. 

With Embiid and Simmons staying locked in during tough starts offensively, it forced the rest of the group to follow their lead. This is how a night in Minnesota is supposed to look for a good team. Job well done.

• With Karl-Anthony Towns on the sideline, this was a matchup tailormade for Embiid. That wasn't necessarily reflected in his field goal percentage early, but you don't shoot 12 free throws in a half by mistake. He sensed an opportunity to bully a small front line and eventually crushed Minnesota's spirit.

That tough start disappeared quickly once Embiid got it in his mind to go directly at Ed Davis and force the Wolves to meet him at or around the rim. Off-balance hooks and jumpers turned into dunks, layups, and yes, even more free-throw attempts from a guy who simply couldn't be guarded. Minnesota didn't start sending extra bodies and attention until it was too late, but Embiid also made some really good passes on duck-ins, and he still managed to find time to clear out so his running mates could get post-ups of their own.

From either side of the basket, all it took was one quick dribble toward the middle for Embiid to leave his defender in the dust. After starting 2/10 from the field and looking like he could be on the way to a howler, he would make his next six shots and spark the run that would ultimately turn a close game into an easy victory. 

I think what stands out to me is that you basically knew this was coming, even with Embiid shooting poorly in the first half and hurting a bit after a few tough falls lately. You could see he was motivated to come out and make sure they didn't give this one away, and the work he did to generate free throws in the first half (on top of his defensive effort) eventually paid off.

Everything looks so much easier for him this season, down to the little things like sealing guys off for a deep catch (it helps that he has a better cast of shooters and entry passers around him). He was a two-way star before this season. This is what a superstar looks like.

• Tyrese Maxey finds himself on the fringe of the rotation for the time being, so it was nice to see the young fella have a mini breakout off of the bench, the first real sign of life from him lately outside of a garbage-time run against Detroit early this week.

His shot selection aside — I have to imagine the analytics guys aren't thrilled with him taking long pull-up twos just inside the arc — Maxey was a needed breath of life for a second unit that has struggled to get it going recently. That's not surprising when you consider the constants (Shake Milton, Dwight Howard) have been bad and that they've shuffled guys in and out of the lineup, and it's why it pays to have a guy like Maxey who is confident and skilled enough to go attack all by himself.

• It could have just been a move to buy Simmons a bit of extra rest after he played 39 minutes the other night against L.A., but Rivers finally started to go away from lineups featuring the Simmons-Howard-Thybulle triumvirate that have been miserable for Philadelphia this season. Harris was an earlier sub than usual in both halves, allowing Rivers to stagger his stars to balance out their lineups throughout the night.

The less we see of that trio going forward, the better. It doesn't help anyone in that trio offensively and it certainly impacts anyone else with the misfortune to play in that spacing disaster.

• Not an offensive performance to write home about for Ben Simmons, but as he did when they met in the playoffs in 2019, Simmons basically had D'Angelo Russell in jail for most of the night. When Russell did get shots off, they weren't exactly tightly contested, and more often than not Simmons prevented him from getting the ball or a look at the rim in the first place.

Besides, I'm a little more forgiving of a night like this when Embiid is absolutely sauteeing the opponent on offense. There are nights when everyone should just get the hell out of the way and let the franchise player go to work, and Simmons was forceful enough in limited opportunities otherwise.

• A few rare exceptions aside, I thought the Sixers' off-ball defense was excellent throughout the game on Friday night, with standout efforts from Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green particularly catching my eye. Thybulle absolutely tortured the Wolves for small errors throughout the game, including guys who are normally very careful with the basketball like Ricky Rubio.

Furkan Korkmaz also had a steady, if unspectacular night off the bench that featured some made threes and even a turnover forced in transition. When they're getting contributions down to the ninth and 10th man in the rotation, the Sixers are tough to beat.

• Tobias Harris had a rough night from the office and may have a small adjustment period with tweaks to the rotation, but he made sure to get one big highlight in before the game ended:

Considering he saved their butts the other night, I'm okay giving him a pass for missed shots.

The Bad

• It has been a rough run for Shake Milton recently, whose Sixth Man of the Year campaign has lost some sizzle as awards talk has started to take shape around the league. Untangling that struggle from the downturn for Dwight Howard is a bit tricky at this point — Howard has been a bull in a china shop recently, so the pick-and-roll combination that worked to great effect early has mostly produced a lot of offensive fouls from Howard in recent weeks.

Prior to the game, Doc Rivers mentioned that he likes what little he has seen from the Simmons at backup five look, the big issue being (and we see eye to eye on this) that they haven't been able to work on it in practice at all yet. I think that might be a path to aiding Milton. Simmons isn't adding spacing to help his drives, but he'll at least avoid picking up a billion fouls and ending possessions prematurely.

You could argue this was a night that they could have leaned on that small look, with Minnesota not offering any size in the paint. But I think getting their best players extra time on the bench was the right move against that opponent, so we'll have to wait on that.

The Ugly

• The Sixers and Wolves combined to shoot 4/24 from three during the first half. I'm as big of an advocate for shooting threes as you'll find, but it sure is tough to watch when guys are just launching jumper after jumper and bricking almost all of them.

I get that Minnesota was missing Karl-Anthony Towns, which is no small absence, but that team is truly awful. 

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