The Sixers' top pair looked to be comfortably among the NBA's elite duos Wednesday night.
Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey led the Sixers to a 127-113 victory over Minnesota at Wells Fargo Center, moving the team to 19-8 and dropping the Western Conference-leading Timberwolves to 20-6.
Embiid had 51 points and 12 rebounds, recording the seventh 50-point game of his career. He shot 17 for 25 from the floor and 17 for 18 at the foul line.
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“I think he’s continuing to get better,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said of Embiid.
Maxey posted 35 points and five assists.
Anthony Edwards (27 points) and Karl-Anthony Towns (23 points) were Minnesota standouts.
The Sixers were without Nicolas Batum (right hamstring strain) and Robert Covington (illness). De'Anthony Melton did not play the second half because of a left thigh contusion sustained in the second quarter.
The Sixers’ final game before their Christmas matchup against the Heat will be Friday night vs. the Raptors.
Here are observations on their best win yet this season:
No shortage of early misses, whistles
Minnesota started 0 for 5 from the field. The Sixers opened 0 for 7.
Kelly Oubre Jr. finally made the team’s first field goal, sinking a three-pointer from the right wing nearly five minutes into the game.
Oubre got his first start since Nov. 10. He’d come off the Sixers’ bench following his return from a fractured rib, but the 28-year-old wing was a logical replacement for Batum. He scored seven points on 3-for-6 shooting over 29 minutes.
The Sixers largely defended well in the first quarter. They effectively blitzed Edwards at times on the perimeter and struck a nice balance between tightly contesting Minnesota’s stars and living with certain Timberwolves shooting jumpers. The team soon erased an 8-0 deficit and held a four-point lead after 12 minutes.
While Embiid didn’t score as freely as usual in the first quarter, he drew two early fouls on both Rudy Gobert and Towns. Naz Reid is a high-caliber backup center, but he struggled in his first stint, missing three long-range jumpers and getting rejected by Embiid at the rim. And with 30.7 seconds remaining in the first period, Reid joined his fellow big men with two personal fouls.
Much-improved work without Embiid
The Sixers’ Embiid-less play to begin the second quarter improved dramatically from their last time out.
After a poor stint Monday night in their loss to the Bulls, Maxey and the Sixers’ second unit outscored Minnesota by three points before Embiid’s re-entry.
The Sixers’ first four players off the bench were Patrick Beverley, Daniel House Jr., Marcus Morris Sr. and Paul Reed. KJ Martin also played seven second-half minutes and did a decent job.
Tobias Harris started the second quarter and was solid defensively against Towns in the post. He’s been unquestionably subpar the past month on offense after a hot start under Nurse, but Harris’ ability to both handle post-up players and hold his own on the perimeter is still clearly useful.
“I thought he had a good game tonight,” Nurse said of Harris. “He worked really hard. He was matched up on Edwards, he was matched up on Towns, he was back to Edwards late. ... I thought he chased the ball. I thought he made some great drives — didn’t finish a couple. … But then he goes down there and dunks one, then he goes and scores one. Gets an offensive rebound here and there. I was really happy with Tobias’ energy and effort all night long.”
Maxey did the bulk of the Sixers’ scoring early in the second quarter, posting nine points over the period’s first four minutes. The Sixers took a 40-30 edge on a short Maxey jumper.
Foul trouble was prominent throughout the night. Gobert and Harris each were called for their third foul late in the second quarter. Both Towns and Jaden McDaniels came on strong for the T-Wolves. McDaniels racked up 19 points in the first half on 7-for-11 shooting — just six points shy of the fourth-year forward’s career high for an entire game. Embiid and Maxey scored 20 first-half points apiece.
While those two were the Sixers’ obvious stars, the supporting cast deserves credit for a much better showing — and against a tough opponent, too.
Sixers' star duo brings A-game after halftime
Melton went down to the floor awkwardly after contesting a shot in the final minute of the second quarter, then gingerly returned to the locker room. Beverley opened the third quarter in Melton’s spot and the 25-year-old combo guard was ruled out because of his thigh contusion.
“He took a knee to the thigh,” Nurse said. “Nothing wrong with any part of his knee or any of that stuff. It was in the thigh. So those (injuries) are sore, and it’ll probably be even more sore tomorrow. We’ll get more of an eval (tomorrow), but that’s what happened.”
Although the Sixers have already accumulated significant shorthanded reps, Melton has been a fixture. He and Harris are the only players to have started all 27 of the Sixers' games thus far.
The team didn’t initially adjust to Melton’s absence well. The Sixers’ half-court offense was deliberate and Minnesota played with greater physicality and force. Maxey committed a turnover on a pocket pass intended for Embiid, the Timberwolves stormed ahead on the fast break, and McDaniels converted a put-back layup. That hoop capped a 13-0 spurt and gave Minnesota a 73-66 lead.
Embiid's response was world-class. He deepened Gobert's foul woes and attacked ruthlessly, drilling mid-range jumpers and driving downhill with venom whenever he could.
Among Embiid's many highlights were a baseline drive and slam on Reid and an earth-shattering, and-one dunk with 23.2 seconds left in the third quarter. His 13th made free throw put the Sixers up 90-87.
Maxey spearheaded an excellent Embiid-less stint to start the fourth quarter. He made two three-pointers, finished a crafty lefty layup on Gobert, and played without any hesitation whatsoever. At this point, he appears very much on track for his first All-Star selection.
“I like when he turns the corner, and he looks down there and he’s got a runway — but he still sees Gobert there. And he just turns on the jets and jumps in the air — goes at him,” Nurse said. “Or moves around him, hits him, whatever it is. That’s the kind of aggressiveness that we’re talking about.
“There’s an opening, there’s space … man, you’ve got to attack downhill and figure it out later. Not see it and say, ‘Ooh, I don’t want to go down there.’ And then all of a sudden, the play stalls; the guy’s back in front and they’re all back to their men. So that was awesome. That was the best he’s done that, tonight. And again, you’re looking down and there’s a shot blocker down there. And he was going down and attacking.”
The players around Maxey continued to chip in valuable, high-energy plays, too. Beverley took a charge; Reed slammed in a put-back dunk; Harris canned a mid-range shot over former teammate Shake Milton.
Embiid made an elbow jumper right after he subbed back in, extending the Sixers' advantage to double digits with about six minutes left. Maxey then zoomed into the paint, drew contact, and yelled out a joyous, "And-one!" as his layup dropped in.
The Sixers had one or two hiccups in the last few minutes, but the primary question remaining was simply how many points Embiid would score on a night he stretched his historic 30-and-10 streak to 12.
He passed the 50-point mark when, after he finally missed a foul shot, Reed snagged the rebound and dished to Embiid. The reigning MVP hit a mid-range jumper, exited with under two minutes left, and received a massive ovation from the home fans.
“I missed (the free throw) on purpose,” Embiid joked. “I guess the lights were too bright, so that’s why. Too much pressure to get the 50-piece. ... P-Reed made a great play and I decided to stat pad and take the last shot to get the 50.“