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Joel Embiid scores 42 in his return, but Sixers fall to Timberwolves in double overtime | Analysis

Back from a West Coast trip and returning two starters to the lineup, the Sixers put up a valiant effort in a 121-120 home loss.

The Minnesota Timberwolves bench celebrates after Sixers center Joel Embiid missed a last-second shot in the second overtime on Saturday.
The Minnesota Timberwolves bench celebrates after Sixers center Joel Embiid missed a last-second shot in the second overtime on Saturday.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Sixers coach Doc Rivers said Saturday’s matchup against Minnesota would be one “that we have to dig deep to win” after the cross-country trip back from the West Coast.

The 76ers could not quite get over the finish line in double overtime.

In a wild 121-120 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers got off to a clunky and ineffective start and then rallied from 20 points down in the second half to take the lead late in regulation. They countered D’Angelo Russell’s ice-in-his-veins shot-making by forcing double overtime with a purposely missed free throw and tip-in. They had a three-point lead with less than two minutes to play in the second extra frame, but surrendered two consecutive buckets — including a Taurean Prince game-winner — and committed a costly turnover in the final 31 seconds.

The outcome spoiled the Sixers’ homecoming following a six-game road trip and a fabulous 42-point, 14-rebound outing from superstar Joel Embiid, who had missed the previous nine games in health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 8.

“Joel was phenomenal tonight, but we still lost the game,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “Joel would take 30 and win, if you know what I’m saying. But he was great.

“Played a ton of minutes [45 minutes, 26 seconds], something you just don’t know from COVID. Give him credit. Clearly, he’s been working out, and he showed us that.”

Until the final seconds, it appeared Embiid would propel his team to victory.

He scored 25 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter and two extra frames. His three consecutive buckets, including a fadeaway with less than two minutes to play in double overtime, gave the Sixers a 120-117 lead. Earlier, he had hit a pull-up three-pointer with less than two minutes to play in regulation to give the Sixers a 98-95 advantage, a go-ahead jumper with less than two minutes to play in overtime, and two free throws to give Philly a 108-107 edge about one minute later.

But the Sixers could not survive Prince’s game-winner, along with a late flurry from Russell, who scored 35 points, including a game-tying three-pointer with 31.9 seconds to play in overtime and a go-ahead trey with 4.7 seconds remaining for a 113-110 lead. Minnesota also got big nights from Towns (28 points and 10 rebounds) and Anthony Edwards (19 points, six rebounds, seven assists).

Tobias Harris (17 points, nine rebounds, four assists), also back after his two-game absence because of a hip injury, tied the score at 100 by going 1-of-2 from the free-throw line with 18.5 seconds to play in regulation and pushed their lead to 110-107 with 35.9 seconds to go in overtime.

Welcome back, Embiid and Harris

Embiid did not believe he was going to play Saturday, after a difficult bout with COVID-19 that included trouble breathing and headaches that “were worse than a migraine.” He said he could not get up and down the floor more than three times during a Friday workout, making it “a miracle” that he played more than 45 minutes on Saturday.

Embiid did not just play. He “was carrying us all throughout the overtimes,” Harris said. That was not an exaggeration, as Embiid scored all seven of the Sixers’ points in the second extra period.

Yet Embiid started the game slowly, missing five of his first seven shots but generating scoring by going 6-of-8 from the free throw line. But he gained steam during the Sixers’ comeback, when they outscored Minnesota 29-16 in the third and 30-28 in the fourth.

His pull-up jumper to cut Minnesota’s lead to 64-52 in the third quarter helped ignite the Sixers’ run to get within six. Another turnaround 8-footer cut Minnesota’s lead to 71-65 with less than three minutes to play in the quarter. And a finger roll got the Sixers within 71-70 in the period’s final minute. Later, an old-fashioned three-point play cut the Timberwolves’ to 95-93 with less than five minutes to go in regulation, before his crunch-time heroics.

“I’m happy to be back with these guys and I love playing basketball,” Embiid said. “So once I’m on the court, might as well just do whatever it takes.”

Embiid, though, also blamed himself for the defeat, pointing to two untimely turnovers and one missed free throw late in regulation and in the second overtime as reasons why they could not finish off the victory. He also interjected to say he was responsible for Maxey’s final turnover.

“It was on me,” Embiid said. “I was supposed to kind of roll, and I popped, so it made his angle a little harder to throw that pass, so next time we’re definitely gonna do a better job.”

Harris, meanwhile, said his hip felt “better.” He also got it going after the break, totaling 11 of his points and four of his rebounds in the fourth quarter.

He attempted only one shot in the first quarter. His next attempt did not come until late in the second, when his jumper was blocked. He clanked a three-pointer off the back iron in the first half’s final minute. With the Sixers surging after cutting the Timberwolves’ lead to 64-58, Harris badly missed a transition three-pointer.

But with Embiid off the floor to start the fourth, Harris got going. His rebound and follow, dunk off a feed from Andre Drummond, and two free throws cut Minnesota’s lead to 80-76. He also got free for a transition layup that got the Sixers within 91-86 with about six minutes to play. He then drove and finished to cut Minnesota’s lead to 91-88.

The return of Embiid and Harris also meant that the Sixers returned to a semi-regular rotation. Matisse Thybulle started, with Danny Green (11 points, three rebounds, three assists, four steals) still on a minutes restriction after recovering from hamstring tightness. Drummond, Georges Niang, Furkan Korkmaz, and Isaiah Joe were the other bench players, with Shake Milton out with a groin injury.

Missed opportunities

The Sixers never led by two possessions Saturday night. But there were multiple times when it felt like they were in control down the stretch. They led by three points with less than two minutes to play in regulation, with 35.9 seconds remaining in the first overtime, and with less than two minutes to play in double overtime.

In the second overtime, the Sixers never scored again — and committed two turnovers — after an Embiid fadeaway gave them a 120-117 lead.

In the first overtime, Russell followed a Harris layup to make the score 110-107 by burying two three-pointers.

In regulation, Towns followed an Embiid three-pointer to make the score 98-95 with a putback, before Edwards drained a corner three-pointer. Then, Embiid and Harris both went 1-of-2 from the line to tie the score instead of snagging the lead.

“The toughest thing about the loss today was we felt like there was numerous times where we definitely should have just really been able to close it out,” Harris said. “We let that opportunity slip. ... It’s all things that we’ll watch film tomorrow and understand.

“Give [Minnesota] credit. I thought they responded every time and made tough shots when they needed it. I think that’s really where the game slipped.”

The Sixers, however, were responsible for the most improbable crunch-time play. Down two with 2.1 seconds to go in the first overtime, Maxey, after making the first foul shot, tossed up a perfectly executed missed free throw for Drummond (who had just subbed in) to tip in and force another additional five minutes.

“That’s such pot luck,” Rivers said. “You can sit there and shoot that 50 times and you can’t miss it that well.”

Added Maxey: “At Kentucky, we used to practice it, actually. ... We had Joel and Andre Drummond in there against two smaller guys, so if I could just get it to the back of the rim and it bounces toward those guys, I knew we had a chance.”

Clunky start

It initially looked like it would be one of those nights for the Sixers.

Harris yelled an expletive after he secured the pass with a wide-open path to the basket early in the first quarter, but the ball inexplicably slipped out of his hands. Later on, Korkmaz grabbed a nifty pass from Drummond but clanked the one-handed dunk attempt off the side of the rim. On the next possession, a Drummond cross-court pass zipped over Niang’s head and into the stands behind the Sixers’ bench.

The Sixers missed their first six shots, went 4-of-16 in the first quarter and finished the first half 11-of-35 (31.4%). Their early double-digit deficit, which reached 16 points in the second quarter and 20 in the third, would have been much greater if they had not manufactured points at the free-throw line, making 15 of 18 shots in the first half.

The Sixers cut into Minnesota’s lead in the second quarter, when back-to-back three-pointers by Niang and Green and a Korkmaz layup made the score 35-28 at the 9:09 mark. But the Timberwolves re-extended their advantage to 16 points in the first half, and to 20 when Taurean Prince buried a three-pointer early in the third quarter.

But the Sixers made their charge after that, with an 18-7 run. Maxey helped ignite the spurt with an and-1 finish, a jumper, a three-pointer, and assist on the Embiid finish that made the score 71-70 in the final minute of the third.