MINNEAPOLIS - The 76ers were in the strange position of holding a one-point lead late in the game. Robert Covington, who joined the team only a few weeks ago after starring for a year in the NBA Development League, found himself with the ball in his hands to the left side of the basket with 1 minute, 15 seconds remaining, about 23 feet out. Only 6 seconds earlier, the Minnesota Timberwolves had climbed to within one, so plenty of time still remained on the shot clock.
But Covington, on an NBA roster really only because of his above-average outside shooting, did what he does best. He launched an ill-advised, what-else-could-I-do three-pointer that went in and gave the Sixers breathing room in what would turn into their first win of the season.
It was that kind of a night for the Sixers in gaining an 85-77 win. Big plays were made when needed and bad ones were avoided.
Some strange things have happened during this pathetic 76ers season, but the start of last night's game might be the strangest so far. After the Sixers won the opening tap and Henry Sims was about to go to the foul line, the refs stopped the game. They had just realized that the teams were going to the wrong baskets. So the foul was negated, Sims didn't go to the line and they started the game all over.
They can start it over, play it again, whatever. The Sixers (1-17) wouldn't care because they came out of it snapping the losing streak that was one away from tying the NBA record to begin a season.
"There's a human side that you walk into that locker room, and you're just proud of them for staying together, and they're just overjoyed," coach Brett Brown said. "We all feel like we've been pretty close the last handful of games, dozen games, we've been pretty close. It's been a five-point game, in fourth periods, in 11 of our 18 games."
And for the first time last night, in front of a listless Minnesota crowd, the Sixers found a way to pull out a win. They did it in the fourth by making four of their seven three-pointers, after making only one of their first 17. They got leadership when needed, big shots from reserves and saved their best play for the end.
"I was happy because, even though we're missing a few players, we feel like we're coming together and learning each other's games and we're locking up on defense," rookie K.J. McDaniels said. "Our defense is helping us a lot and the guards rebounding, and everybody rebounding as a group, has been big."
In a game that might be one of the worst the NBA will see all season, the Sixers opened the first quarter by limiting the Timberwolves to 13 points and opened the lead to 12 points early in the second quarter. But there's a reason the Sixers lost their first 17 games, and a solid first quarter was followed by a horrid second as they scored only nine points, made only three of their 15 shots and trailed by two at the half.
But Michael Carter-Williams, pressed into 43 minutes of play because of injuries to fellow point guards Alexey Shved (hip) and Tony Wroten (knee), put the team on his surgically repaired shoulder for the rest of the night. MCW collected 20 points, nine assists and nine rebounds.
Covington scored 17, including that huge three. McDaniels, despite shooting only 4-for-13 from the floor, had a very active night, with 12 points, nine rebounds and four more blocks.
"He was very strong in his desire to try and get us a win," Brown said of Carter-Williams. "He knew, apart from where we were at as a program, there's no other point guards. And so to navigate how to play minutes and still maintain and retain an energy and deliver like he did at the end was just a hell of a statement on his behalf."
If there was any truth that teams played harder against the Sixers so as not to be the first to lose, the Timberwolves didn't know it. They played uninspired for much of the game, and poorly throughout. It didn't help that three key players (Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Ricky Rubio) were sidelined with injuries.
Former Sixer Thaddeus Young faced his old team for the first time in a regular-season game and scored 16 points to lead Minnesota, which dropped to 4-13.
When Brett Brown looked on the court and saw Andrew Wiggins running up and down, he was watching a player he had studied hard during the offseason. It's no secret the organization hoped to land Wiggins in last June's draft, but that didn't quite work out.
"We had him," Brown said. "I was expecting we were going to draft Stauskas and Wiggins and roll out two playing players this year. That obviously hasn't happened. I studied Andrew a lot. And then the injury to Joel happened and everybody's world kind of changed.
"Andrew Wiggins, I mean, there was a stage of probably 3 weeks where you're planning on plays and how you're going to use him. He's a unique person. He's young and charismatic and he doesn't know what he doesn't know, just like a young guy. But he's just an amazing athlete. You project him out and you wonder who he's going to be. Is he Kobe ? Is he Durant? Who is he? His upside is off the charts."
Before the game, the league announced that Wiggins (11 points last night in 30 minutes) was the Western Conference rookie of the month. That probably didn't sit all that well with Brown, as Embiid sat on the bench and Dario Saric continues playing in Turkey.