Coming off a thrilling win on South Beach against the Miami Heat, the Minnesota Timberwolves took their Western Conference-leading record to the City of Brotherly Love to take on the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Wolves came out of the gates strong, scoring the first eight points of the game, but Philly came back strong with a 7-0 run of their own. After a back-and-forth first frame, Philly led 28-24.
Foul trouble was an issue early on for the Wolves as Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, and Naz Reid all picked up two fouls in the first quarter of the game. Five of those six fouls were drawn by Joel Embiid, who leads the league in free throws drawn per game.
The Wolves did a better job avoiding fouls in the second quarter as Embiid was only able to draw one foul. Embiid finished the first half with 20 points and ten free throws, just shy of his average of 11.4 per game.
Jaden McDaniels had a phenomenal first half, scoring a team-high 19 points on 7/11 shooting including two 3-pointers and this transition layup going right at Embiid.
Jaden McDaniels transition finish over Joel Embiid, wow pic.twitter.com/0k6eHOksSi— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) December 21, 2023
Jaden wasn’t the only Wolves player to score over Embiid, as Towns was also able to get into the point and score in the paint. Towns finished the half with 16 points on 6/10 shooting along with seven rebounds.
THAT'S BULLY BALL RIGHT THERE. pic.twitter.com/nFRFZ906n9— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) December 21, 2023
With the Wolves trailing by four at halftime, the third quarter would again be pivotal. While the Wolves have been sensational so far this season in third quarters, outscoring their opponents by 111 points, the 76ers have been even better at +132.
The Wolves looked like they had put together another third-quarter masterpiece as they went on a 15-4 run to begin the period. But the 76ers would claw back into the lead on the back of 19 third-quarter points from Embiid to bring his total up to 39. The Wolves would trail by three heading into the fourth.
With Embiid off the floor to begin the fourth quarter, the Wolves would get outscored by Philadelphia by five points, bringing their +/- in the non-Embiid minutes to -8 for the game before garbage time.
That would prove to be the beginning of the end for the Wolves, as the 76ers were able to cruise to victory from there, winning the game 127-113.
For Wolves fans, it was hard not to be frustrated by the way the officials called this game, specifically as it relates to Embiid. All night, the reigning MVP seemed to get the benefit on the whistle as he went to the free throw line 18 times total in the game.
To put that in perspective, Minnesota has had four games this season in which they did not shoot that many free throws as an entire team in a game.
Embiid leads the lead in both points per game and free throws attempted per game, so it should come as no surprise that he was able to do both tonight, but so many of the foul calls he was awarded did not seem to be getting called the same way on the other end.
Among legitimate fouls, there were so many slight bumps and reach-ins called fouls, that it was hard not to notice the frustration growing among the Timberwolves players and coaches. Each call in and of itself may not have been wrong, but stacked together, it’s hard not to notice a pattern of Embiid consistently getting a friendly whistle.
These calls obviously led to points at the line, but they also lead to the Wolves players getting in foul trouble, along with the inability to press up to guard Embiid in fear of getting called for more fouls. This led to Embiid being able to attack defenders and get to the rim.
JOEL EMBIID GOING OFF— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) December 21, 2023
He's up to 36 points after this THUNDEROUS dunk pic.twitter.com/d98WdLLUnp
Embiid is unquestionably a fantastic player, and very may well have been able to cook the Wolves defense without the benefit of the whistle, but that is what makes it even more frustrating. He is so good that giving him that extra advantage does a disservice to opposing teams and NBA fans who just want to see a great player play without all the time at the line.
Embiid did go 17/25 from the field and dominated in the mid-range, so it would be far from true to say the officials were the only reason for his success. Embiid’s mid-range shot was on-point all night and that likely would have been the case regardless. On the flip side, he did start off the game missing four of his first five shot and the way the Wolves were able to defend him changed after he drew so many early fouls.
Embiid would finish the game with 51 points, 17 of which came at the free-throw line.
Jaden McDaniels’ Offense
Slim had a great game offensively, scoring 21 points on 8/12 shooting including a couple of three-pointers. With Jaden missing several games due to injury, and his defensive intensity falling a bit likely due to that, getting him going on offense is a solid step forward for his game this season.
Most of that offense though came in the first half as 19 of his 21 points came in the first and second quarters. The Wolves were unable to get him the ball down the stretch of the game as McDaniels only had one second-half shot, a tip-in layup early in the third quarter. That was especially disappointing considering how much bigger he was than the 6-foot-2 Maxey, who defended him in both halves
Throughout the game and this season, McDaniels has often been the place where opposing defenses have looked to hide their lesser defenders. If the Wolves want to look like an above-average offense more often, getting the ball to Jaden when he’s being guarded by lesser players may be the way to do that.
The Wolves again struggled with turning the ball over, as they did so 19 times in this game. These turnovers were a big reason the Wolves lost this game as the 76ers were able to score 28 points off of them.
The points off turnovers are costly by themselves, but considering the Wolves have the best half-court defense in the NBA, allowing points off turnovers is potentially giving teams points they would not have been able to score otherwise.
Coming into tonight, the Timberwolves had turned the ball over the seventh-most of any team, which may likely rise with this game. Coming into today, the only team that is currently in a playoff spot that has turned the ball over more than the Wolves is the Orlando Magic.
As the season moves forward, and the playoffs draw closer, the Wolves will need to turn the ball over far less if they hope to have the playoff run many think they are capable of.
The Wolves take on LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers back at Target Center tomorrow with both teams playing on the second night of a back-to-back. The game will tip off at 8 PM CT on Bally Sports North and NBA TV. Anthony Davis hurt an already-banged-up ankle in the Lakers’ 124-108 loss in Chicago tonight, so expect him to miss tomorrow’s contest.