The Minnesota Timberwolves came into play Tuesday with an opportunity to extend their winning streak to four games, seize control of the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference and make a statement against the Philadelphia 76ers on TNT.
Instead, they backslid into early season form, wasting an incredible 32-point performance from Anthony Edwards. Dull offense, a lack of fight on the glass, and a dominant performance from the opponent’s No. 1 option resulted drew boos from the crowd and a created a disappointing 110-91 gap on the scoreboard when the final buzzer sounded.
Anthony Edwards Returns to Form, But No One Joins Him
The 21-year-old superstar stepped onto the floor with an palpable energy that Wolves fans haven’t felt since before the All-Star Break. Edwards’ 27-point, eight-assist showing in a needed win over the Sacramento Kings was clearly a step in the right direction, but he built upon that on Tuesday night. Despite facing a stout defender in De’Anthony Melton, Edwards scored 10 quick points mostly by way of his jumper before working his way into the paint in a major way.
Perhaps more importantly, he got the crowd into the game with that dunk, plus energizing plays in important moments throughout the first half to keep the crowd engaged in what was a low energy night from his teammates. The Timberwolves nearly went scoreless over the final four minutes of the second quarter over a 15-2 close to the half for Philly, so Head Coach Chris Finch was already upset to begin with. But when Edwards made an impressive finish through contact from Joel Embiid, Finch had seen enough from Karl Lane, who drew the ire of both sides all night.
“What do we gotta do to get a call at the basket down here? What do we gotta do, just tell me so I can tell them at halftime” - Chris Finch pic.twitter.com/ROQxvCGyRE— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) March 8, 2023
Edwards sat on 20 points at the half, but his teammates only chipped in a combined 25 points.
Finch thought his team didn’t push the pace well enough against a Sixers team playing on the second night of a back-to-back without starting point guard James Harden (left foot soreness).
“Shot selection I thought in the second quarter was poor. And then when we did get shots, we couldn’t knock one down. I thought we played slow,” Finch said. “We played the game at their speed most of the night. We talked about wanting to play with a lot more pace than we did.”
A repetitive problem for the Wolves this season has been their lack of ball movement when the pace of the game slows down; it’s part of the reason they struggle as much as they do in the clutch. Tonight, the lack of a consistent drive-and-kick game was the culprit for limited kinetic energy in the half-court.
“I think most teams get their best 3-point looks by getting the ball to the paint. I thought we got the ball to the paint pretty effectively in the first two quarters,” Finch explained. “We just missed the easy kick-out play. Then by the time we were seeing the pass, seeing the kick-out, we turned down some shots, we pump-faked ourself covered and let them go back out.”
The Jordan McLaughlin and Nickeil Alexander-Walker tandem will certainly help stimulate flow with their ability to drive and dish, but Wolves shooters struggled to cash in on catch-and-shoot looks — a driving force behind the team’s 30.6% shooting night from deep (11/36), their worst since the home collapse to the Washington Wizards back on February 16 (27.6%).
Things didn’t get much better for the Wolves in the second half.
With Maxey on Conley, Melton on Edwards, Tobias Harris on Slow-Mo, P.J. Tucker on McDaniels and Embiid on Gobert, the Sixers were a nightmare matchup for the Wolves and had an answer for everything Minnesota tried to do offensively.
Rudy Gobert didn’t find the bottom of the net for the rest of the game after a promising six-point first quarter. Kyle Anderson missed a few bunnies at the rim, scoring only seven points to go with an uncharacteristically low two assists. Jaden McDaniels and Mike Conley each shot 1/6 from the floor and didn’t find any type of rhythm. And even from the bench, the five guys who played meaningful minutes shot 4/15 (26.6%) from 3. Only three Timberwolves (Edwards, Taurean Prince and Naz Reid) finished in double-figures.
Simply put, when Edwards’ teammates shoot a combined 6/26 (23.1%) from deep, they’ve got no chance at winning the game. It’s a clear example of the void Karl-Anthony Towns can fill immediately upon his return. He’s one of the best spot-up shooters the league has ever seen and, as a result, will relieve the pressure on Edwards’ shoulders every night.
It was an off night that the Wolves didn’t overreact to in the slightest. The team’s unified presented feeling was clear: treat the game as “one of those nights” they need to flush before Friday’s home game against Mikal Bridges and the scrappy Brooklyn Nets.
“We’ve been hitting shots. We’ve been shooting great [on] the 3 ball. Nights like this are bound to happen,” Edwards said in the locker room postgame with in a matter of fact tone with a typical smile on his face. “You gotta get over it, look to the next game. Hopefully we’re back to ourselves.”
An Ultra-Efficient Night From Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey
Embiid proved why his name belongs in the thick of the NBA MVP discussion on Tuesday night, connecting on 13 of his 22 shots, including all four of his 3s and each of his nine free throw attempts.
“MVP. Most Valuable Player in the NBA. For sure,” Edwards said, showing off a signed jersey from Embiid on his locker room chair, before explaining what he admires about Embiid’s game. “Just how he adjusts offensively. When Rudy was in, he knew we were staying home. Naz checked in, he knew he was coming off the catch. He was good tonight, man.”
As Ant said, Embiid did most of his work with the jumper when Gobert was on the floor. To pair with his perfect 3-point performance, the 28-year-old superstar shot 5/11 (45.5%) from the mid-range and 4/7 at the rim, good for an effective field goal percentage of 68.2%, well above his expected eFG% of 48.6%, per PBP Stats.
Big time players make big time plays over and over again, and that’s what Embiid did at Target Center on Tuesday night. He took what the defense gave him, shot within the flow of the offense, and kept his foot on the gas while the Wolves struggled to help build a lead late in the second quarter.
When Embiid wasn’t scoring, he made smart reads that created open looks for his teammates beyond the arc, namely Tyrese Maxey. The fiery sixth man was ready to roll without Harden; he scored 27 points on 9/16 shooting (56%), fueled by a terrific 4/7 shooting night from deep. Early on, he attacked the rim beautifully in the hand-off game with Embiid, before shifting his sights to space the floor and attack over the top of the defense. Seemingly every time the Wolves tried to make a mini run in the third quarter, Maxey gave out dagger buckets that drained the energy from the crowd and the will to fight from the Timberwolves.
The pair combined for an incredible 66 points on 14/27 shooting from 2 (51.9%), 8/11 from 3 (72.7%) and 14/14 from the charity stripe on a night Philadelphia shot 15/25 (60%) from beyond the arc and 22/23 (95.7%) on their free throws.
In a make or miss league, there will be nights like this for the Wolves. However, cutting down on the pockets of three or four minutes where they completely let go of the rope is going to painfully punish them down the stretch of the season in a stacked up Western Conference in which every game matters for postseason seeding.
Maintaining focus will be key for a team that plays its next seven games against Eastern Conference opponents. It was probably easy for the Timberwolves to lock in on the West Coast because they played opponents they were fighting with in the standings. Now, they have to bring it against teams they aren’t directly jockeying for playoff spots, which has been a major weak spot for them:
The Wolves are just 2-9 in their last 11 games against Eastern Conference teams after a 7-2 start.
Minnesota’s next chance to get back in the win column is Friday against the Nets at Target Center. You can catch the 7 PM tip on Bally Sports North.