The 76ers are being treated like a national joke for their futility.

Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe said that Kentucky, his alma mater, would hold the Sixers to one win in a seven-game series. ESPN has been poking fun at the franchise on a daily basis.

So how does Kevin Durant, the reigning NBA MVP, feel about the 1-17 Sixers?

"They've been playing hard," Durant said a day after the Sixers avoided the worst start in NBA history by posting their first victory of the season, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves, 85-77, Wednesday night at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

A loss would have tied the Sixers with the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets for the most consecutive losses to begin a season - 18.

"They're a young team," said Durant, whose Oklahoma City Thunder will face the Sixers on Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center. "We've been through it where it's kind of tough to finish out a game.

"But they've been in a lot of games. It's just a matter of them finishing."

The matchup will be Durant's second game back from the foot injury that sidelined him for six weeks. He had 27 points in a 112-104 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday. Durant's all-star-caliber teammate, Russell Westbrook, returned last week from a fractured hand.

The team struggled when its best two players were sidelined. As a result, the Thunder come to Philadelphia with a 5-13 record.

"We definitely can't look past them," Durant said of the Sixers. "We've got to play hard for 48 minutes. We've seen it. We let up three minutes last game and [the Pelicans] went up 17 on us. It was hard to fight back.

"So against any team in this league, you can get beat any night. So we got to play for 48 minutes and play our game, and we'll be fine."

The 76ers showed signs of an improving team Wednesday night, even though their opponent was depleted by injuries. For the first time this season, the Sixers made plays down the stretch in their victory over the shorthanded Timberwolves (4-13).

"People talk a lot about, 'Does this rebuild produce habits of losing? And do you get tired of losing?' " coach Brett Brown said of the team's tanking. "I sort of see it a different way, where we are learning how to close out a game."

Before Wednesday, the Sixers were within five points in the fourth quarter in 11 of their 17 games. However, turnovers, poor shooting, blown defensive assignments, or just being overmatched did them in.

At times, it appeared the Sixers would again self-destruct against a Minnesota team that was playing without point guard Ricky Rubio (sprained left ankle), shooting guard Kevin Martin (fractured right foot), center Nikola Pekovic (sprained right wrist), and reserve center Ronny Turiaf (sore right hip).

After blowing a 12-point, first-half lead, the Sixers blew a seven-point, fourth-quarter advantage.

But reserve guard K.J. McDaniels responded with a three-pointer on an assist from point guard Michael Carter-Williams, as the Sixers retook the lead (76-75) with 1 minute, 59 seconds left.

The Sixers made their next three baskets, as Carter-Williams took over the game. He scored on a driving layup. Then last season's rookie of the year assisted on a three-pointer by reserve guard Robert Covington before tossing an alley-oop to power forward Nerlens Noel for a dunk. That gave the Sixers an 83-77 lead with 46.7 seconds left.

@PompeyOnSixers