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Sixers 93, Wolves 91: Unlikely comeback goes unrewarded

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“Sometimes we play like we’re mad at each other. We like each other. We’re great teammates. We have to play as a team, and sometimes we are not.”

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves staged a dramatic comeback from 26 points down to pull into a 91-91 tie with the Philadelphia 76ers, only to lose on a last-second backdoor layup from Robert Covington. The last few minutes were very exciting, but ultimately that’s not the story of this game. The story is the Wolves getting beaten to a pulp in the first 30 minutes of this game by a bad, bad team.

You’ve read this story before. Tom Thibodeau has been talking for the entire season about playing 48 minutes, keeping focus, all the usual stuff. Tonight, the problem was the first half, where Sunday’s second half took all the blame. Both ended up being winnable games in the end, but, to coin a phrase often heard inside the Wells Fargo Center, the Wolves’ process in these games is not what it needs to be.

They came out sluggish, missing almost every shot they took and giving up easy dunks and layups. The only two Wolves to make a field goal in the first quarter were Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns, and the Sixers’ 29-16 lead after one was well-deserved. The Wolves stabilized in the second quarter, but they did no damage to the lead and took a fifteen-point deficit to halftime.

At halftime, I wrote the following tweet:

The Wolves’ offensive problems in the first half were familiar and easy to diagnose. Ricky Rubio would either hand the ball off or pass to one of the four other starters (or Shabazz Muhammad). They would dribble into coverage, force up a contested shot (or just lose the ball), and not get any second chances because if the Sixers have one thing, it’s a lot of very large guys. There was little teamwork and little communication from anyone but Rubio.

“Sometimes we play like we’re mad at each other,” Rubio said after the game. “We like each other. We’re great teammates. We have to play as a team, and sometimes we are not.” So often it seemed like Rubio was the only one with any idea of where each player on offense was supposed to be, and while his numbers were unimpressive, the plays and decisions were so often out of his hands.

The frightening thing defensively is that the score could have been much worse than it was. The Sixers missed wide open threes and layups often through the quarter, as Wolves got lost in rotations or simply didn’t bother to close out on time. Therefore, when the first ninety seconds of the third quarter contained a contested 20-footer by Andrew Wiggins, a slow closeout by Towns on an Ersan Ilyasova three, and a five-second inbounding violation because no one remembered to come get the ball from Ricky Rubio, the game seemed pretty much over.

From there, the Wolves did find some fight. Buckets started going in for Zach LaVine and for Towns, and the Sixers ran with a lineup that both couldn’t score and couldn’t defend (of note: this was the stretch of time with Jahlil Okafor on the floor). This was equal parts the Wolves finding themselves and the Sixers giving the game away, continuing into the fourth with turnovers and bad decisions.

The Wolves did manage to tie the game on a Rubio three with 1.6 seconds left before the game-winning play by Philadelphia, completing what would have been their largest comeback in franchise history. Credit to Covington for finishing the layup as he fell to the ground, but credit also to Brett Brown for a perfect play design, and to Joel Embiid for occupying two defenders and screening Wiggins so Covington could get free.

The comeback should not be the story. The first 28 minutes of the game was some of the worst basketball the Wolves have played this year, and for a team that entered the season with the lofty expectation of being in the playoff race (not that they’re out of it), giving up a 26 point lead to a Sixers team that not only is one of the worst in the league, but is also missing several players to injury.

What will it take to get 48 minutes of concentration and focus two to four times a week? The pressure of losing winnable game after winnable game doesn’t seem to have done it. After the disappointment of Sunday night’s loss, one would think the Wolves would have been even more motivated to put that behind them and come out with guns blazing. Instead, they came out with a whimper.

“The season is going by fast,” Rubio said postgame. “We’re almost half of the way, and we’ve gotta win more games. We have to figure it out. There’s no more time.” The urgency expressed by Rubio needs to permeate the rest of the team moving forward. The Wolves are 11-24, second worst in the Western Conference, and the eighth seed continues to slip further away. Something has to change.

Other Notes

  • Joel Embiid, if his health continues to be good, is going to be terrifying for years to come. Embiid singlehandedly dominated large stretches of this game, and only very late in the fourth quarter did Towns get the better of him. None of the Wolves’ bigs could really defend him, nor could Towns get much in the post against him. He is big, strong, and very skilled.
  • There was at least one positive note to take from this game on a larger scale, or at least an interesting one: Nemanja Bjelica played the last 14:26, and Gorgui Dieng sat for the entire fourth quarter. This let Towns shift to the 5 to guard Embiid for the final stretch of the game, his best stretch of the game. Bjelica only had 7 points, but was a team-best +9, and wasn’t caught in the headlights defensively often. If Bjelica can succeed with the starters to allow Towns to play the 5, that could be a huge development.
  • Towns finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists, leading or tied for the team lead in all three categories. At the same time, he didn’t make anything other than tips, dunks and free throws until 8:20 in the third quarter (a three, the first bucket of the comeback), and didn’t look at all engaged on defense early, frequently late closing out on Ilyasova, who shot well enough to punish his tardiness. He was a big reason the Wolves caught up, but also a contributor to how big the hole got.
  • Towns had the Wolves’ first opportunity to tie the game with 32.7 seconds left, an open straightaway three, but it clanked again. In a lineup with LaVine (41.8% from 3 this season), Wiggins (35.7%) and Bjelica (33.3%), Towns (31.8%) should probably not be the one shooting that shot, open as he might have been. Then again, Rubio (27.0%) tied the game, so what do I know.