With Joel Embiid sidelined Wednesday night, the Sixers were substantial underdogs in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves took care of business.
Minnesota earned a 112-99 victory at Target Center, improving to a Western Conference-best 11-3.
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Star guard Anthony Edwards scored 31 points and Karl-Anthony Towns posted 23.
Tyrese Maxey, De'Anthony Melton and Marcus Morris Sr. all had 16 points for the Sixers, who never led and trailed by as many as 21 with Embiid (left hip soreness) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (fractured rib) out.
Embiid’s absence was his first of the season. That wasn’t surprising after he went 41 minutes on Tuesday night in the Sixers’ overtime loss to the Cavaliers.
“I’m not sure,” Embiid said after the game when asked about his status for the T-Wolves matchup. “We’re going to figure out what happens. Just listening to (the medical staff). I’ve been beat up a little bit, so listen to them and go from there.”
Over the Sixers’ first 14 outings, Embiid played 34.6 minutes per contest. He’s averaged 31.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.8 blocks.
Minnesota was down Jaden McDaniels (right ankle sprain) and Jordan McLaughlin (right knee MCL sprain).
The 10-5 Sixers have another challenging game on deck; they’ll next play the Thunder on Saturday. OKC moved to 11-4 Wednesday by beating the Bulls.
Here are observations on the Sixers' loss to the Timberwolves:
Not the start undersized Sixers envisioned
After a brief look at a small-ball unit late in Tuesday’s second quarter with Embiid in foul trouble, Sixers head coach Nick Nurse tried it again Wednesday.
Morris was the Sixers’ replacement starter at center and his opening possession was inauspicious. He committed a foul 13 seconds into the game. Ten seconds later, Rudy Gobert threw down an alley-oop dunk.
The Sixers managed a short positive run with their starting unit that included a Morris put-back layup, but they couldn't sustain it for long at all. Morris was whistled for his second foul under two minutes into the night on a moving screen. And with 8:36 left in the first quarter, Nicolas Batum also picked up his second foul when he made an ill-advised reach-in on Towns.
Paul Reed and Danuel House Jr. subbed in and the Sixers turned to a zone defense. The new personnel did nothing to stem the Timberwolves’ surge, though. House committed a poor turnover on a strange jump pass, which led to Mike Conley Jr. scoring a transition layup. Minnesota held a 13-2 first-quarter advantage in points off turnovers and a 9-0 advantage in fast-break points.
The Sixers’ shooting woes — 3 for their first 14 from the field — didn’t help matters. Meanwhile, Edwards was aggressive and dynamic in scoring 11 quick points. Former Sixer Shake Milton’s runner stretched the T-Wolves’ lead to 37-18 late in the first quarter.
The circumstances — reigning MVP out, second game of a home-road back-to-back, strong opposition — certainly played a major role in the Sixers’ dreadful opening quarter. Still, they were considerably below par at the factors within their power and faced a daunting deficit after 12 minutes.
Much more Morris, Reed than the norm
Reed and the Sixers were good to begin the second quarter. Melton’s pull-up jumper capped a 10-0 run.
Morris was also a bit better in his second stint, sinking a pick-and-pop three and avoiding further foul trouble, and the Sixers cut Minnesota’s lead to 44-41 on two Tobias Harris free throws. Harris and Melton each did well in the first half to drive hard downhill and draw foul shots. Melton was 8 for 8 on first-half free throws, Harris 5 for 6.
Even with 6-foot-2 Maxey and 6-foot-4 Jaden Springer on the floor, the Sixers’ switch-everything and zone defenses were effective in the second quarter. Edwards drained two contested jumpers, but the Sixers made the Timberwolves' offense work much harder.
Springer was one of 10 Sixers in Nurse’s rotation Wednesday. Mo Bamba did not play until garbage time, which illustrates how low he currently sits in the Sixers’ pecking order. Batum played some fourth-quarter minutes at the five before the 7-foot Bamba checked in.
Morris started the third quarter and knocked down a three on the Sixers’ first possession. Though that shot did not spark a dramatic twist in the game, Morris’ play early in the third quarter was easily the best he’s looked as a Sixer. The 34-year-old Philadelphia native forced a couple of turnovers with physical, aggressive defense. He also made open jumpers over Gobert and even converted an and-one layup with a pump fake, drive and hoop through contact.
Morris’ third-quarter scoring doesn’t mean he should vault over established rotation players or suddenly receive steady center minutes, but it was a nice stint for a player who'd largely struggled since being traded to Philadelphia.
Reed isn't an outside shooting threat, but he's decidedly superior to Morris as a defender and offensive rebounder. He played 26 minutes off the bench and ended with 10 points on 5-for-9 shooting, nine rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
Piling up serious minutes
As is usually the case on Embiid-less evenings, the Sixers' offense in the early going included more Harris post-ups and isolations.
He seemed to have much less steam in the second half, scoring only two points after intermission and finishing with 15 on 4-for-11 shooting. Harris, who's played in every Sixers game so far, entered sixth in the NBA in minutes per night. His 36.8 average was almost four above his mark last season.
Fatigue also appeared to have a significant, understandable impact on Maxey, who went 0 for 5 from three-point range. Ahead of Wednesday's action, Maxey's 38.7 minutes per game led the league.
The two days before their next game will be very welcome for the Sixers. Maxey and Harris generally look capable of handling regular, heavy minutes, but the Sixers' recent schedule has been especially grueling.
The team will presumably be thankful that its next back-to-back isn't until mid-December.