Sixers vs. Timberwolves: Chaotic comeback falls just short

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3 observations after Sixers' chaotic comeback falls just short originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Hours after being diagnosed with a small fracture in his left foot, Tyrese Maxey watched the Sixers play the Timberwolves in a gray sweatsuit, next to James Harden in a black hoodie.

They were spectators for a truly chaotic comeback Saturday night at Wells Fargo Center. Ultimately, the shorthanded Sixers fell just short of erasing a 20-point Minnesota lead and dropped to 8-8 with a 112-109 loss. Georges Niang missed a tightly contested three on the Sixers' final possession.

In addition to Maxey and Harden, Tobias Harris, Furkan Korkmaz and Jaden Springer were also out with injuries.

Joel Embiid had 32 points and nine rebounds. Shake Milton posted 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting and De'Anthony Melton recorded 19 points, six assists and five steals.

Anthony Edwards scored a team-high 25 points for Minnesota.

The Sixers will face the Nets and Hornets in a back-to-back on Tuesday and Wednesday. Here are observations on their loss to the Timberwolves:

Offense a grind, though not impossible 

The Sixers used the same starters as in the second half of Friday’s win over the Bucks, beginning the game with Melton, Milton, Danuel House Jr., P.J. Tucker and Embiid.

Embiid and Tucker were sturdy when the Timberwolves tested their post defense in the early going. Rudy Gobert air-balled a lefty hook attempt, and the Sixers went up 11-5 when Embiid drove into the three-time Defensive Player of the Year’s body before converting an and-one layup.

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers noted Friday that the Sixers have recognized Tucker is best suited to guarding three through five. Indeed, while the veteran forward will sometimes cede a significant speed advantage against perimeter-oriented players, he’s looked better when the Sixers ask him to defend taller opponents and physicality is a major factor.

In general, the Sixers’ first eight or so minutes were promising. They’ll need shooters to fire without hesitation when defenses throw all their focus at Embiid, and Milton opened well in that department. He’d been just 2 for 11 from three-point range this season heading into Saturday’s game, but the 26-year-old drained two triples in the first quarter through the rhythm of the Sixers’ half-court offense.

On the first, he flared off of a Tucker screen and Embiid found him open on the wing. On the second, Milton benefited from Minnesota’s attention shifting to a Melton-Embiid side pick-and-roll and he hit a catch-and-shoot three on the weak side. Offense will be a lot harder for the Sixers without their two top guards, but open shots should still be there somewhat regularly as long as Embiid’s on the floor.

When he’s off the court, the work will be much tougher. Milton launched a pass about six feet over House’s head late in the first. And, with Tucker also on the bench, an aggressive Karl-Anthony Towns scored inside twice to give the Timberwolves a 33-23 lead after a period. Rivers has mentioned that he likes Montrezl Harrell’s ability to help facilitate offense from the top of the key, but a Paul Reed-Harrell frontcourt is clearly not the team’s first choice.

One of the many downsides of the Sixers’ injuries is that the team lacks players besides Embiid who frequently draw fouls. He made 18 of his 20 free throws in the game. The Sixers’ other starters were a combined 4 for 6.

Embiid sees tons of doubles 

In recalling Embiid’s 59-point showing Sunday, Harden was bemused that the Jazz didn’t force the ball out of the big man’s hands with double teams.

Now, double teaming Embiid should often be a no-brainer. Embiid was content to pass and patient when the Timberwolves sent help his way, but he made several clear miscues and half of the Sixers’ 10 first-half turnovers. One giveaway on a cross-court pass in the second quarter led to a Jaden McDaniels fast-break layup. A couple of possessions later, Embiid again faced a double and didn’t spot a wide-open Reed cutting down the lane.

Pick-and-rolls involving Embiid were at least relatively simple and predictable because the Sixers knew Gobert would be in drop coverage. However, the Sixers’ execution was not the sharpest. Milton and Embiid weren’t on the same wavelength regarding where Milton would throw his pocket pass, creating a Minnesota fast break and eventual Gobert put-back dunk. An open Towns three stretched the Timberwolves’ lead to 59-41 and Rivers needed to use a timeout. At that point, Minnesota had a 13-3 advantage in points off turnovers and 45 field-goal attempts to the Sixers’ 30.

Embiid ultimately registered a fourth consecutive game with six or more assists. His desire to make teammates better and be an unselfish No. 1 option is admirable — and opponents sometimes won’t give him much choice — but we imagine the Sixers will require some massive scoring nights over the next couple of weeks.

To Embiid's credit, he was determined to draw contact and make the most of his muscle in the fourth quarter. He also was the primary reason why Towns, Gobert and Naz Reid were all in foul trouble for most of the second half.

Melton, Sixers create unlikely comeback push

With Tucker at center in the second quarter, the Sixers called upon rather unlikely sources of offense, including a Milton fadeaway as the shot clock expired, a self-created House three, and two driving, and-one Niang hoops.

However, that success did not dent Minnesota’s lead because points kept flowing for the Timberwolves. Against a big opponent, rim protection was an expected issue for the Sixers. And, though it does not excuse every easy Minnesota shot, the Sixers’ aggressive defenders weren’t in a situation that encouraged a fearless, ball-hunting style until the desperate final minutes.

Each Sixer was surely aware that any foul trouble would be costly. Outside of the team’s nine-man rotation, the Sixers had one active player. That was Julian Champagnie, a rookie wing on a two-way contract. When Rivers turned to zone in the second half, it was sensible.

Matisse Thybulle air-balled a three-point attempt a couple of feet long in the first quarter and played just five minutes. He’s still bothered by an ankle injury, Rivers said before the game.

The Sixers began the second half with Niang (15 points) in Tucker’s spot. He received 32 minutes, Tucker 34. It’s worth monitoring the 37-year-old Tucker’s playing time during this period where the Sixers’ roster is seriously depleted. He and Niang are the only Sixers to have appeared in every game this season.

Reed conjured a spark on the third quarter's final play when he somehow broke free with a slick, open-floor ball handling sequence and (barely) kept his balance to lay the ball in. That shot cut the Sixers' deficit to 13 points, but it did inject a sliver of hope, life and fun.

Melton was great in the fourth quarter on both ends. His back-to-back three-pointers trimmed Minnesota's lead to 10 points, and a twisting Milton layup cut it to 105-96.

All the excitement stopped with 5:33 left when Niang was called for a charge and Embiid tripped over him on the floor. Embiid remained down on the court for a while, but he got up with a mild limp and stayed in the game.

Once the action resumed, Melton wrecked just about anything the Timberwolves had planned over the next couple of minutes. His steal set up a Milton fast-break dunk, and an Embiid triple from the wing put the Sixers' deficit at a mere three points. The team's defense was locked in and Minnesota looked shaken.

It appeared the Timberwolves were safely home when Edwards drilled an after-timeout three, but Melton and the Sixers nearly pulled off the deeply improbable comeback.

Melton canned a top-of-the-key three to put the Sixers down 110-109, and he soon picked up yet another steal to earn himself a chance in the open court. His magic finally ran out when he tried to score a lefty layup on Edwards and came up empty.