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Game Preview #26: Wolves at 76ers

Karl-Anthony Towns and Minnesota look to make it four wins in a row as they visit Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and a tough Sixers squad in Philly.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Anthony Edwards and the red hot Minnesota Timberwolves continue their road trip in the City of Brotherly Love, where they’ll look to sweep the season series with Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and the Philadelphia 76ers.


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (20-5) vs Philadelphia 76ers (18-8)
  • When: Wednesday, December 20 at 6:00 PM CT
  • Where: Wells Fargo Center — Philadelphia, PA
  • TV: Bally Sports North, NBA TV
  • Radio: Wolves Radio App, iHeart Radio App
  • Line: Wolves +4 | Total: 225.5 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)

Injury Report

Updated as of Wednesday at 5:20 PM CT

Minnesota

OUT:

  • Jaylen Clark (right achilles tendon rupture rehab)
  • Leonard Miller (G League assignment)
  • Josh Minott (G League assignment)
  • Daishen Nix (two-way contract)

Philadelphia

AVAILABLE:

  • Marcus Morris Sr. (non-COVID illness)

OUT:

  • Nicolas Batum (right hamstring strain)
  • Ricky Council IV (two-way contract)
  • Robert Covington (non-COVID illness)
  • Javonte Smart (two-way contract)
  • Terquavion Smith (two-way contract)


What To Watch For

Philadelphia 76ers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Joel Embiid Problem

When it comes to defending the Sixers, it really boils down to one question — can you make everything Joel Embiid does a little tougher?

For most teams — especially an Eastern Conference littered with lousy defenses — the answer is no. But the Wolves are uniquely equipped to do so. Between Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Naz Reid and Kyle Anderson, there will be plenty of defensive reps from strong forwards/centers to go around.

The No. 1 item on the “Successfully Defending Joel Embiid” checklist is to keep him off the free throw line. The Sixers are 18-5 when the reigning NBA MVP plays, but just 5-3 when Embiid shoots less than 10 free throws in a game. Make no mistake about it, Embiid (league-leading 11.4 free throw attempts per contest this season) is the most prolific free throw grifter in the modern history of the league. Only Wilt Chamberlain (11.4) and Bob Pettit (10.3) hold higher career per game averages than Embiid’s 10.0 mark, which has been closer to 11.5 in the past four seasons.

Over that time frame, Minnesota has failed in their efforts to keep Embiid off the free throw line. The Wolves have faced the Yaounde, Cameroon native six times, holding him under 10 attempts just once, in a game last season during which Embiid killed them from beyond the arc and in the mid-range.

Embiid has averaged 16.3 free throw attempts in those six games, a good five higher than his average across the 202 games he has played against other opponents since the start of the 2020-21 season.

Next on the checklist is contesting his mid-range attempts. Embiid takes 49% of his total shots in the mid-range, which ranks in the 96th percentile among NBA bigs. The six-time All-Star is shooting 50% on those jumpers so far this season (79th percentile). And, in some good news for Wolves fans, Minnesota is coming off a strong performance defending another big who does the majority of his work in the mid-range in Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo. The former Kentucky standout takes more mid-range jumpers than any other big in the league (11.4 per game) and is connecting on 44% on his looks this season (53rd percentile for bigs) but drained just 5/16 (31.3%) of those attempts on Monday night. Gobert was excellent in his coverage, holding Adebayo to 5/15 overall from the floor. Since Embiid has a few inches and almost 30 pounds on Adebayo, Towns may be the direct matchup. But expect Gobert to lurk off Tobias Harris (34.8% 3-point shooter this season) or Kelly Oubre Jr. (30%) and contest as many of Embiid’s shots as he can.

Given that Embiid is scoring a league-best 34.4 points per game on 53.4% shooting, you would think that he is highly efficient from the floor, but that’s not the case. His 68% shooting mark at the rim is below average for bigs, and his 36% mark from deep is respectable, but about average. (Not to mention that Embiid only takes 39% of his shots at the rim and 12% of them from beyond the arc.) The only area of the floor where he ranks better than the 70% percentile league-wide is in the long mid-range area (15 feet to the 3-point line), where his 52% clip is good for the 86th percentile. Minnesota is the fourth-ranked mid-range defense (allows 39.8% shooting on those looks), so it’ll be strength on strength.

If the Timberwolves bigs are able to stay out of foul trouble and prevent Embiid from doing his work at the free throw line, instead using their length to legally contest his mid-range looks, you have to like Minnesota’s chances of earning another win over the NBA’s top-ranked offense and a playoff-caliber opponent on Wednesday.

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Limited Help Beyond Embiid and Maxey

(Editor’s Note: All Sixers player stats in this section are from the 13 GP since November 21.)

Since November 21, Embiid (37.7 PPG on 57.5/36.4/89.5 splits) and Maxey (24.7 PPG on 44.4/35.3/84.5 splits) have been nothing short of incredible. Their combined 62.4 PPG represents 50.4% of Philly’s 123.8 nightly scoring average.

But that is to be expected, as Philadelphia in the span has played Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit twice, Atlanta, and Washington twice. All of them rank 23rd or worse defensively. The Sixers also played six games against top-11 defenses (BOS, NOP, LAL, OKC, CLE, MIN) and went 2-4 in those matchups (2-1 with Embiid playing).

In those contests against elite defenses, Head Coach Nick Nurse has only received three (3) 20-plus-point performances from players other than Embiid and Maxey. Three. And two of them came in a game without both Embiid and Maxey, so that number shrinks to just one in five games in which either or both of their stars playing.

Beyond the two All-Stars-to-be, Tobias Harris (13.0) is the only other 76er averaging north of 12 PPG in that 13-game span. Getting Oubre Jr. back has been an important lift, but his 10.9 PPG mark isn’t setting the world on fire, nor is De’Anthony Melton’s 11.9 PPG average.

Wednesday could be an uphill climb for the Sixers’ supporting cast, as Nic Batum — who has been a valuable floor spacer and ball mover for the Sixers this season — will miss the contest with a right hamstring issue, while important wing/forward defenders and shooters Marcus Morris Sr. (8.0 PPG) and Robert Covington (5.2 PPG) are both seemingly very questionable with non-COVID illnesses based on Nurse’s comments on Tuesday.

Minnesota limiting the damage of either Embiid or Maxey (both of whom they are pretty well set up to defend) and shifting the scoring burden onto those who haven’t been able to consistently produce points is borderline essential to walking away with a win. The 76ers as a team get to the line (26.6 FT rate) better than anyone in the league, take care of the ball (12.8% TOV rate is fifth), effectively crash the offensive glass (29.5% OREB rate is ninth), and hold the NBA’s most efficient transition offense (132.1 offensive rating) while also creating fast break opportunities at a great clip (15.8% of all possessions, ninth).

Limiting turnovers and long rebounds will force Philadelphia into the half-court, where they fall from first to eighth in offensive rating (102.6). Half-court trips represent just 77.5% of the 76ers’ total possessions, which is third-fewest in the league, so slowing the game down, forcing the ball out of Embiid’s and Maxey’s hands, and out-executing the Sixers will be the blueprint for success.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Miami Heat Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The Need For Perimeter Scoring

This is another game in which Mike Conley and Anthony Edwards are going to need to be aggressive.

Philly is allowing the ninth-most points to opposing point guards, because Melton (their top perimeter defender) has spent his time clamping shooting guards and Maxey has struggled to defend his position. The 6-foot-7 Harris will guard Towns, which means Philly is more than likely going to have to double KAT to avoid the three-time All-Star from feasting on the block. When that happens, the ball is going to swing around the perimeter to shooters. Philly allows opponents to shoot corner 3s at the third-highest rate this season (7.5% of total shots), so remaining shot-ready will be crucial. The Sixers have gotten into trouble with over-contesting, resulting in wide open mid-range shots or further probing into the paint and lobs over the top to centers. Is that Gobert’s music?

Where Edwards can make his mark is at the rim. Philly is allowing opponents to take 35.5% of their total shots at the rim (24th in the league), and Ant needs to continue to get down hill and put stress on the interior of the Sixers’ defense. While it would be great if Edwards could replicate his 5/9 3-point shooting performance in the two teams’ first matchup, his long-range efficiency dips from 40.5% at home to 35.8% on the road, so he shouldn’t bank on it. Plus, getting Embiid in foul trouble would be ideal.

And with Batum out, old friend Patrick Beverley could slide into the starting lineup to guard Conley. If that happens, Jaden McDaniels will need to make an impact offensively going up against the 6-foot-2 Maxey. Whether it is freely firing more corner 3s, cutting from the slot, or simply attacking more aggressively in the hand-off game, McDaniels winning his matchup against whomever defends him will be imperative.