There was a point in this game where the Sixers reached a season-high 25 turnovers and Ben Simmons had contributed 0 points on 0-4 shooting.
On the other end, Minnesota was 1-17 from three-point range and completely missed the rim on two straight shot attempts.
An instant classic, this was not, but it really opened up into an entertaining game around the five-minute mark of regulation. You can skip the first three quarters if you decide to watch the replay.
Brett Brown’s team overcame a nine-point fourth quarter deficit and cleaned up the sloppiness, showing a lot of poise down the stretch in a six-point overtime win. The late-game possessions were purposeful, the execution was sharp, and they buckled down when it really mattered to snap a four-game losing streak and steal a game on the road against a playoff-bound squad.
And it’s a monstrous victory in the intangibles department, too. Imagine coming home to face the Thunder on national television, on a day where ESPN is dedicating a lot of programming to the Sixers, while riding a five-game losing streak and falling below the .500 mark for the first time since October.
That will not be the case, with the squad improving to 14-13 and finishing the three-game road swing on a positive note.
1) Sleeping on the job
There’s a reason Minnesota has one of the NBA’s worst defenses, and it’s because they totally snooze at critical moments.
The Sixers killed the Wolves twice in the waning moments last night on a simple backside look underneath the basket:
Believe it or not, that was Simmons’ first basket of the game, at 1:17 in the fourth quarter. Taj Gibson is staring off into space on the dunk.
Remember when your junior high coach told you to keep your head on a swivel when defending? All five Minnesota players were completely fixated on Embiid when he received JJ Redick’s entry pass:
The Sixers torched the Wolves with the same exact thing in overtime, this time with Karl-Anthony Towns dozing off:
It’s the same thing here, get the switch and dump it down to Embiid. Joel shows excellent recognition to pick out Simmons, who just slides right by Towns and Andrew Wiggins:
So what gives?
Tom Thibodeau has always been a good defensive coach. Gibson and Butler are solid defenders. Are they playing too many minutes? The Wolves seem to struggle in the late stages of games.
Towns played 48 minutes last night. Butler played 46. Wiggins and Gibson played 40 and Jeff Teague, the fifth starter, played 38. They aren’t going to their bench a ton, which is typical Thibs, and they might just be flat-out tired at the end of the fourth quarter.
That’s likely the case, as explored in a SB Nation article:
The (starting) unit has played 158 first-quarter minutes, allowing 99.2 points per 100 possessions. The lineup has played 97 second-quarter minutes, allowing 92.9 points per 100 possessions. The unit has played 162 third-quarter minutes, allowing 103.9 points per 100 possessions. (This is a bit worse but still above average for the league.)
But in the fourth, where the unit has played 113 minutes this season, the five key Wolves are allowing 113.7 points per 100 possessions. The bench is not the problem here: The stars and their two go-to teammates are way worse on defense in the fourth than earlier in the game.
There you go.
2) Second unit sparks
Alright, back to the Sixers, who got some energy off the bench from T.J. McConnell and Trevor Booker last night.
McConnell finished with 7 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal in 26 minutes of play, though he did turn it over three times. He just looked more comfortable out there, mashing around the rim and doing his typical up-tempo thing. You could tell he wasn’t 100% when he tried to come back from the shoulder injury last week.
Booker, I think, has been a really nice addition to the squad. He contributed 12, 5, and 5 with a pair of blocks and 1 steal in just 20 minutes.
He did a little bit of everything, shooting 6-8 from the floor, making a couple of hustle plays, and keeping the game within arm’s reach despite the sloppy start. I don’t have any fancy analysis. Booker just puts in work, and while some of the groupings that wind up on the floor severely lack offensive talent, the energy provided by he and McConnell looks to be the catalyst for some improvement from that second unit.
3) Big ball
Not sure people realized, but Joel Embiid played a career-high 39 minutes last night. Richaun Holmes played a season-high 33 minutes.
Robert Covington’s injury absence resulted in Brett Brown going with a pair of bigs in the starting lineup to match Minnesota’s size, a group that stands 6,8″, 6’8″, 7’0″, 6’9″, and 6’2″.
Joel finished with 28, 12, and 8. Holmes added a double-double himself, going for 15 and 11. He got behind that sleepy Minnesota defense a few times last night for big transition lobs from Simmons:
The finish is fantastic, but watch Richaun Holmes sprint to get where he needs to be.
Incredible effort, the Sixers are up three. pic.twitter.com/XfYTPMhmWZ
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) December 13, 2017
You’d like to see more of that from Richaun, and fewer transition three pointers, but we’ll work on that.
Nice to see Holmes get some run with Joel, which Brown tried a bit last week. That gives the head ball coach some more flexibility and another look to work with.
When Richaun goes back to the bench, I’m intrigued to see a lineup of a healthy McConnell, Holmes, Booker, and your choice of wings, preferably one with a shot. I think that’s a grouping that plays hard as shit and gives you punch on the second unit while taking some of the onus off the first team to do all of the scoring.
4) Keeping focus
For everything that Joel Embiid does well, you still see these moments where he loses concentration on the offensive end, which bleeds into transition and really bites the Sixers in the rear end.
It happened twice last night, first in the third quarter:
Joel loses the handle and recovers the ball, but then tries to force it inside, leading to a swat and transition bucket on the other end.
Then, in the fourth quarter:
Again he’s working in the post, but tries a tough pass inside for Holmes. Embiid winds up on Jimmy Butler in transition and Butler slides through for the dunk.
You see those moments in every game, and while they don’t happen often, they do remind you that Joel is still young and needs some polish in specific areas of his game. Mental focus is one of them, and I think sometimes he’s not always dialed in on that end of the floor. Or, when the offensive sequence starts, initial disruption of his rhythm or post-move frustrates him to the point where he tries to force the next action instead of kicking it out and hitting the reset button.
That’s about it, as far as weaknesses. When you go for 28, 12, and 8, it’s hard to justify any sort of nitpicking, but I’m just trying to identify things that are holding Joel back. The fact of the matter is that he has a chance to be one of the best bigs to ever play the game if he continues to smooth over those small blemishes on his game.