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November 27, 2021

Instant observations: Joel Embiid's 42 points not enough as Sixers fall to Wolves in double overtime

Joel Embiid scored 42 points in his return to the lineup but the Sixers fell to the Wolves anyway, dropping a 121-120 double overtime game on Saturday night. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The end-of-game, intentional missed free throw play basically never works. I can't even remember the last time I watched a basketball game period where a team successfully scored in a must-have moment to extend a game with a free-throw putback. And yet, the Sixers pulled it off at the end of the first overtime, bringing in Andre Drummond to tap in Tyrese Maxey's miss. 

I have covered a lot of goofy stuff watching this team play basketball, but this is up there with any of it.

• There were mistakes made to be sure, but even after a long layoff due to COVID, this game showcased how Joel Embiid has evolved as a player over the last year or so. The Timberwolves sent doubles all night long at Embiid, and although they succeeded at forcing turnovers on a couple of possessions on the block, Embiid spent long stretches of the evening shredding Minnesota doubles to find open shooters on the perimeter. The cross-court pass to the corner was his preferred spot to look for whenever the Wolves sent pressure, and with better shooting luck on their side, Embiid would have racked up a ton of helpers against Minnesota. 

As it was, he created open look after open look for guys like Seth Curry and Danny Green, which is exactly how this team is going to win if they're going to win with an offense built around a post-up center. Embiid's individual scoring is nice, but turning the scoring threat into repeated corner threes is the holy grail for this group. Instead of abandoning team basketball because they were trailing big early in the second half, Embiid only leaned into it further, and it helped the Sixers claw their way back into this game, one made jumper at a time. 

Embiid's other important contribution to this game was his exploitation of the officials, who were ready to whistle early and often. Philadelphia's free-throw machine had Minnesota defenders jumping all over the place throughout the evening, helping him get points on the board even as his jumper took some time to get into this game. He probably benefitted from some star calls in the second half, but knowing when and how to get those is part of the gig.

The big guy would eventually get going late in this one, stepping back into the lineup and playing second-half hero without any chance to catch his breath. Embiid hit a monster stepback three late in regulation that brought the house down, and he kept demanding the ball when the chips were down, forcing the officials to make a decision by seeking out contact throughout the fourth quarter and overtime.

Considering how much time he missed, Embiid looked great physically late in this one. Sprinkle in some absolutely insane defensive plays at the rim — Anthony Edwards had to throw up some real trash to try to score around him — and this was a hell of a return, a slow start aside. The late first overtime turnover was an absolute backbreaker, though.

• Danny Green was expected to be at or around 17 minutes of action tonight, but Doc Rivers went over the limit when the Sixers needed a spark in the second half. Good call by the coach — Green was a difference-maker for Philly when it looked like this game was on the verge of going completely off the rails, helping to pull them back in with a vintage Danny Green performance.

The loudest contributions Green makes are always the made threes, but he's so much more than his shot contributions. He closes out hard without flying into or past opposing perimeter players, he pokes the ball away from his man on-ball to get the Sixers rolling on the break, and his craftiness on the baseline is underappreciated for its impact on the offense. Even if Green isn't the guy taking/making a shot, drawing attention as he darts from corner to corner is ultra-valuable.

If he had sunk the three he missed at the end of the third after coming up with a steal in the backcourt with about 25 seconds to play, I think the roof might have blown off the Wells Fargo Center. There are plenty of you infuriated by his bad nights, but he is a critical piece for this group.

• Tobias Harris was flat-out terrible for the first half of this game, but I think he deserves credit for the fight and toughness he showed around the basket in the fourth quarter. With the Sixers on the comeback trail for basically the entire second half, a lot of guys were running on fumes as this game wore on, the weight of their push coming down on them. But Harris was a man possessed around the basket, scoring at the rim several times and coming down with a handful of offensive rebounds to extend possessions and covert them into points.

Sometimes it's just not going to be your night. When that's the case, you can get over the hump by simply out willing your opponent, and Harris clearly smelled fatigue in a group that was on the second half of a back-to-back. 

• Critical second-half adjustment — moving Embiid to an off-KAT role for stretches to empower him to give help at the rim and distort the floor to punish Minnesota for having non-shooters on the floor. It's the sort of thing I'd like to see more often out of Doc Rivers.

The Bad

• The Sixers didn't do just about anything right in the first half against the Wolves. Clunkers have been few and far between for this group, so perhaps they were simply due, but both ends of the floor were a mess.

Minnesota made the decision to aggressively double Joel Embiid almost every time he had the ball, and the big guy did a relatively good job of moving the basketball to an open guy whenever that happened. The problems popped up after that decision was inevitably made — the Sixers dribbled out of some open looks, hesitated too long and junked up the offense, or just missed some wide-open looks.

The defensive end didn't go a whole lot better for the Sixers, though at least they could somewhat lean into officiating excuses to explain some of their problems. Outside of a brief and effective stretch for their backups early in the second quarter, Minnesota was a step quicker on most possessions, beating them to loose balls and spots on the floor, punishing the Sixers as they tried to get on the same page. It was even more inexcusable than it would have been normally with the Wolves on the second half of a back-to-back and the Sixers fresh off of two days off.

It's the stuff you can't correct or scheme out that creates long-term concern (or exacerbates the concern that's already there). This is not a team that can just freely switch everything, with a lot of exploitable pieces playing important roles on offense. Seth Curry's defensive awareness needs work without getting to his physical limitations, and Tyrese Maxey may compete harder but he has a tough time trying to deal with bigger players on that end. Playing both of them in the backcourt at the same time asks a lot of the rim protector, and though Joel Embiid can be a miracle worker there, he can't do everything.

• To harp on the Curry thing a little further, there's just no way he should be as bad/unaware as he often seems to be on defense. I actually think he has gotten a raw deal in the assessment of their Game 7 loss vs. Atlanta — Kevin Huerter made a lot of tough shots over his outstretched arms — but his overall defense is probably worse than it is given credit for, in ways that don't always immediately show up in the box score.

There are a lot of sequences where an extra rotation or a burst of effort from Curry would make all the difference in the world, only for Curry to fail in his task, setting the opponent up for an immediate open shot or a chain reaction that leads to them getting one. If the Sixers could have put a good shooter with passable defense on the floor in his spot, they probably would have walked away with a win without overtime being necessary.

But this is the trade-off they have made in order to get spacing on the floor. They get a ton of value out of his shooting, so it's worth living with some warts, but it does hurt that they don't really have alternatives (at least yet) if he struggles on that end.

• Tyrese Maxey was as bad as any Sixers player on the floor for the first half of this game, struggling to beat Minnesota's pressure and drawing dead on a lot of defensive possessions. Any skeptics who thought he would come back to earth once Joel Embiid was back in the lineup probably felt vindicated momentarily, but Maxey eventually come roaring back in the third quarter, helping the Sixers pull back into range with a scoring barrage.

There were ugly turnovers in the first half and when the game got tight in crunch time, which is a big reason the Sixers ended up taking the L. 

One thing I liked seeing out of Maxey — waving off Embiid in crunch time when he thought he had a better matchup. Learning how to navigate crunch time as the primary handler is going to require Maxey to say no to the higher paid guys on this team sometimes, and even though the results weren't there, I like the show of confidence from the 21-year-old.

Even when Maxey goes through growing pains, those can be spun as a positive that will benefit him and the team over the long-term. There are no moral victories for a team trying to compete, though, and he didn't give them enough.

• On the negative side of the ledger for Embiid, he was far too jumpy against Karl-Anthony Towns in space on Saturday night. Granted, there are legitimate reasons to be a bit fearful of Towns' shot fake, but Embiid made life too easy for him at times, shuffling his feet and over-jumping instead of staying grounded and trying to force Towns to go through him.

This wasn't just an Embiid problem. Andre Drummond looked completely out of sorts when he tried to stick KAT in the first half, losing the foot speed battle in space every time there was a chance for Towns to attack him.

• Let's stick on Drummond for a moment. If he is going to show the level of apathy he did on Saturday night when you put him on the floor for a basketball game, he should be nailed to the bench. His ability to hit a few nice passes in traffic does not make up for all of the other warts, and they would likely be better off trying to see if they can develop Charles Bassey, who has already shown flashes and at a minimum has competed at the level required every night, for whatever his other warts are. 

It's not like this should come as some massive surprise to anyone who has watched Drummond play over the years. He didn't descend from $100 million to minimum salary territory for no reason. The Lakers acquired him last year with many people labeling him some sort of "missing piece," only for his poor decision-making, moment-to-moment effort, and non-existent touch around the basket to wipe him out of their playoff plans.

Drummond probably has a higher ceiling than all of their previous backup centers (unless you count theoretical Al Horford), but the floor is just as low. 

• This game had a lot of great examples of why putting Matisse Thybulle in the starting lineup is a dicier proposition than a lot of people seem to think. The Sixers don't have the out-and-out perimeter alpha who you can throw the ball to and solve your problems on offense, which means every link in the chain has to be able to contribute something as a shooter or decision-maker. Thybulle offers neither, and when things get junked up like they did Saturday, his presence on the floor amplifies their problems.

And Thybulle didn't offer anything close to his usual defensive impact on Saturday, either. D'Angelo Russell got rolling late and absolutely handed Thybulle his ass, sending him diving and lunging every which way except for the direction the ball was going. He played far too many minutes on Saturday, and if Danny Green was fully healthy, I would bet you big money that wouldn't be the case.

• Embiid did a lot of good in this one, but regardless of how you feel about the call Doc Rivers challenged late, he had the ball in his hands and coughed it up in a must-have situation. And losing to the Wolves in overtime with Towns on the bench having fouled out is just brutal. 

The Ugly

• The entire first quarter falls into this category. Minnesota looked like they were playing a different sport than the Sixers, and you can't pin all of it on getting two big pieces back in the lineup — especially because Embiid looked mostly fine in his usual role at the center of things on offense.

What jumped out right away was the difference in athleticism and pace between the two teams. The Timberwolves are playing a much more aggressive defensive style than in years past, and the Sixers' perimeter players had trouble dealing with the pressure early, leading to some painfully slow possessions and a few ugly turnovers when the Wolves were able to get out in passing lanes. They didn't fare much better on the other end — Matisse Thybulle might have the quickness to stay with Anthony Edwards, but Edwards shrugged off the leaner defender several times on his way to the basket, scoring at the rim and around Joel Embiid several times early.

Then there were strange decisions made based on the matchup. Instead of using the presence of iffy shooters to tilt their defense and crowd the players who mattered, there were Sixers players hugging up on guys like Jarred Vanderbilt, who hasn't made a single three this season. That led to the Sixers getting beat on backdoor cuts that had no reason to be viable in the first place, assuming everyone read the scouting report.

• The officiating in this game was pretty bad. Phantom foul calls on both teams, inconsistency with how much guys were allowed to get away with, all the trappings of an ugly game. And the natives let them know about it, booing the refs early and often on Saturday. 

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