The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t made anything easy dating back to their 2022 Play-In Game victory, so why would they start now?
After leading by as much as 20 in the first half, Minnesota crumbled down the stretch. Anthony Edwards’ seven fourth-quarter points proved to be barely enough — but enough — to stave off a furious rally in the final frame to defeat Joel Embiid and his depleted Philadelphia 76ers 112-109. Even though the Sixers were without James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris, given the Wolves’ standing now at 8-8, they’ll take any win they can get, no matter how ugly it is.
“This is a game that you have to get if you’re in our situation. Not just trying to scratch back to .500 on the season, but that’s also a team that’s severely depleted,” Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch said postgame. “The schedule presents us with an opportunity to play a team like Philly who’s not at full strength, you’ve got to make hay in this one.”
The final 8:00 or so may grab the headlines of this game, but the first 40 minutes and change may be where the Timberwolves choose to focus their energy as they move beyond this one. From the jump, Minnesota did a fantastic job in key areas they have struggled with all season: containing stars, moving the ball, and rebounding.
Minnesota made Embiid to work for his nine first-quarter points, forcing three turnovers in the process. One of them came via an Edwards poke-away off Embiid when the five-time All-Star had the Wolves’ young star on a switch at the elbow. Edwards took away Embiid’s space, got into his body, and timed his reach perfectly. That got Edwards going.
The former No. 1 overall pick came right back down the floor a possession later to attack Embiid in the paint, drawing the first of his two and-1s in the frame en route to an 11-point quarter.
On the other end of the floor, Minnesota forced Philadelphia to take contested mid-range jumpers and rebounded every single Sixers miss, fueling the team’s pace in transition. Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert both did a fantastic job of quickly throwing outlet passes to Edwards or D’Angelo Russell, who was tremendous at the controls of the team’s offense in the first half.
He infused pace into the Timberwolves’ attack, manipulated the defense with his eyes, shifted defenders with his handle, delivered on-time, on-target passes to his teammates, and took smart shots in the flow of the offense. Better yet, Russell created an open shot for seemingly everyone he played with in his first two stints en route to dropping five dimes in the first half with zero turnovers.
Russell’s play catalyzed excellent off-ball movement and screening from Jaden McDaniels, Towns and Gobert that led to easy buckets inside. The Wolves out-scored the Sixers 34-16 in the paint and assisted on 17 of their 26 made field goals in the first half as a result.
Jaylen Nowell became another key cog in the team’s first half attack. Nowell struggled in his previous five games, scoring just 6.6 points on 38.7/31.3/100 shooting splits, and registering 1.4 assists-to-1.6 turnovers in 13.3 minutes per contest. He was determined to improve upon that tonight. The 2018-19 Pac-12 Player of the Year delivered an and-1 almost immediately upon checking into the game late in the first, then kept it rolling into the second.
bucket. bullseye pic.twitter.com/nBTlNuzBi8— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 20, 2022
The fourth-year bucket-getter later converted a second and-1 and hit Naz Reid on a beautiful feed in pick-and-roll, too. Finch paired the two together for most of their minutes tonight, which helped Nowell find an offensive rhythm after experiencing a power outage of late.
“It’s really great. I’ve known Naz for a long time going back to high school. It’s our fourth year playing together. So obviously we know each other’s game very well, we complement each other very well. I love playing with him,” Nowell told Canis Hoopus postgame. “When you’re playing with guys who you’re around a lot ... there’s just that sixth sense that you guys have together. And yeah, we definitely have that.”
The Wolves’ dynamic two-way play ballooned the team’s lead out to 20 at one point in the first half, but the Sixers clawed their way back into it when their first unit got back on the floor late in the second quarter. Minnesota had possession up 16 with under 45 seconds left, but went into the break up just 12 because of a poor offensive possession followed by a turnover.
Coming out of the locker room, Russell became a man possessed. The one-time All-Star accounted for 13 of the team’s first 17 points of the half, scoring 10 and assisting on a McDaniels 3, as part of his largely terrific 19-point, seven-assist night.
Perhaps equally as important, Edwards finally found Gobert on a lob.
On the other side, Embiid was determined to slow the game down and get to the free throw line, as a means of both keeping Gobert in foul trouble and catching his breath. The Sixers played Saturday on the second leg of a back-to-back after defeating the Milwaukee Bucks at Wells Fargo Center on Friday night. After early 3-pointers from Danuel House Jr. and Georges Niang, Philly went cold, so the 2021-22 scoring champ went to work. Embiid drew four fouls resulting in eight foul shots in between the 6:36 and 2:35 marks of the quarter, and sent both Gobert and Towns to the bench with four fouls. Those eight free throws were the only points the Sixers scored in that four-minute stretch.
Minnesota didn’t their understandable frustration affect their efficient offensive execution. Finch’s group moved the ball well, set screens at an increased rate, and made the tired Philly defense fly around. Taurean Prince, Naz Reid and Edwards combined to score all the team’s 14 points over the final 4:55 of play in the third to keep the Sixers at bay (97-84) entering the fourth quarter, which proved to be crucial in the end.
NAZ MADE HIM TOUCH THE FLOOR pic.twitter.com/2ra1nbFTL4— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 20, 2022
Nowell returned to start the fourth and not a moment too soon. He responded two a pair of De’Anthony Melton 3s with two buckets of his own to keep the lead at 13, before throwing a gorgeous feed to Russell in transition to extend the lead to 15 at the 8:46 mark, prompting a Sixers timeout. That was where the fun stopped.
Minnesota had a four-on-one fast break, on which Nowell threw an over-the-head lob to a trailing Gobert, not noticing Embiid was sprinting back to defend it. That turnover led to an easy Milton layup. Add in a McDaniels travel on the next trip the tension starts to build.
“Turnovers were really the key. We were up 15 with like seven to play, we get a stop, we turn it over on the break. Then we come down and I think we travel the next time,” Finch recalled. “From there, it was a little bit of an avalanche of mistakes and less than ideal shots.”
Sixers Head Coach Doc Rivers then deployed a 2-3 zone defense (with a few 1-2-2 looks) that worked to perfection. The Timberwolves didn’t make the already-tired defense work. Limited ball movement, limited screening, a ton of dribbling, and plenty of settling for jumpers cracked the door open for the Sixers, and boy did they walk through it.
Finch called a timeout mid-way through the Sixers’ run, but it didn’t help. Minnesota dribbled around the zone for 20 seconds, and a late pass wasn’t enough to prevent a shot clock violation out of the timeout. All Finch could do was take a deep breath.
Embiid continued his foul chicanery to perfection, Shake Milton became a force in the paint, Melton continued to make monster plays on both ends as a disrupter and playmaker getting others open looks.
While all that took place, the Wolves (but primarily Towns and Edwards) took shots early in the shot clock, didn’t reverse the ball against the zone and made zero flashes to the middle of the floor. Add two Russell turnovers that led to five Sixers points and you get a three-point game with 4:28 left.
Shortly thereafter, Finch turned to Kyle Anderson as a spark to get the ball moving and the defense working. Anderson made an immediate impact. Slow-Mo screened the top of the defense on his first possession, which forced Milton to sink into the middle of the floor and opened a passing window for Russell. Ant did the rest.
BIG TIME BUCKET pic.twitter.com/y8RCihAnkW— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 20, 2022
Minnesota forced two more stops with Anderson’s help. Edwards took the second miss the distance and got fouled, extending the lead to eight with 2:30 to play. Poor defensive communication and shot selection from the Wolves then fueled a 7-0 Sixers run.
Wolves win but wow that was ridiculous pic.twitter.com/TBfhfBJx8r— John Meyer (@meyerNBA) November 20, 2022
With the game standing at 110-109 Minnesota with 29.1 seconds left, Edwards just about gave Timberwolves fans a heart attack.
But give the kid credit. He could’ve given up on the play, yet instead sprinted back in transition to force a Melton miss and save the game. Edwards added a pair of free throws and perfectly contested Niang’s game-tying 3-pointer to give the Wolves a 112-109 win.
“It was ugly. We took a lot of bad shots. I definitely did,” Edwards told Bally Sports North’s Katie Storm postgame. “But we got the win, man, so I’m happy.”
“For the most part, we played three and a half really good quarters, then just lots of careless turnovers, which has been kind of our big flaw at times,” Finch said postgame. “We were able to hang on, make a couple shots, make a couple big plays to win a game like that, but it really shouldn’t have come down to that. But all credit to our guys for hanging together and figuring out a way to hang on.”
Wolves fans aren’t alone in thinking that at least part of their team’s inability to confidently close games strong is mental, especially after blowing three 10-point fourth quarter leads to the Memphis Grizzlies in last season’s playoffs.
“Maybe, I don’t know,” Finch said in response to a question about whether these collapses are mental. “I think anytime the game tightens up on you and you turn it over and you’re not playing well, it probably lays in the back of people’s minds.”
Minnesota had more turnovers (six) than made field goals (four) and shot 4/18 (22%) in the fourth quarter. Certainly that doesn’t inspire confidence against a team missing three of its four best players. However, the Wolves forced eight turnovers in their own right and, made up for a poor, 15-point quarter by holding Philadelphia to 25 points in the final frame. Their effort in the first 3.5 quarters proved to be enough to extend the team’s winning streak to three, the largest of the season, and that has to be a confidence builder for a team that has already experienced some bleak moments in its first 16 games.
Given a break in the schedule and how many injuries the Wolves’ Western Conference counterparts are enduring, now is the time to keep stacking wins.
• Butler out on Monday— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) November 20, 2022
• Haliburton not 100% for Indiana, Duarte out
• Ball aggravated left ankle sprain, Hornets stink
Getting to 11-8 by the end of the day Friday could have the Wolves back in that 3-6 range.
Can't waste any more games pic.twitter.com/6U8kPb2LiU
We’ll see if the Wolves are up to the task when they return home on Monday.
ANOTHA WIN IN PHILLY.— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 20, 2022
Ant - 25 PTS / 5 REB / 5 AST / 1 BLK / 1 STL
DLo - 19 PTS / 2 REB / 7 AST
Jaylen - 13 PTS / 2 REB / 2 AST
KAT - 12 PTS / 8 REB / 3 AST
Jaden - 11 PTS / 1 REB / 1 AST / 3 STL pic.twitter.com/Pd3fAgFBFs
Minnesota will host the Miami Heat, who will be without Jimmy Butler due to an injury, on Monday at 7 PM CT. You can catch the game on Bally Sports North.