I'll admit it: I thought they were done. Down seven and dragging in the fourth quarter, it just didn't seem like the Sixers had the energy or the shooting to get the buckets needed to get back in it against the Minnesota Timberwolves. And then once Philly battled back and Jimmy Butler hit that three to put the Wolves up two in the final minute -- of course he did, the NBA is still shooting 100% on That Shot against the Sixers -- you just kinda had to laugh about the Sixers losing another game in such a fashion.
But then, Joel Embiid got deep post position, drew a Minnesota desperation foul, and calmly sank two free throws to tie it. Butler missed an off-balance jumper in the waning seconds of regulation, and for the first time this season, the Sixers headed to overitme. It was uncharted territory for these Sixers, and it seemed like they might be able to steal one. And they actually did, emerging with a 118-112 win.
Before we get into Embiid's performance, and all the reasons this was such a clutch W for the Sixers, first a quick word about Robert Covington: Damn, this team needs Robert Covington. As much shooting as it seems like this team has when everything is clicking, when even one key perimeter player is missing, it's amazing how quickly things fall apart -- within minutes, we're kicking out to Trevor Booker and Richaun Holmes behind the arc and they're going "wait, what am I supposed to do with this?" (Actually, Richaun is more than happy to fire away from deep, but that's its own set of problems.) Not to mention how little wing defense we have without RoCo -- hardly surprising that Butler went for a season-high 38 against J.J. Redick and Dario Saric. We are in much trouble if Cov misses any more time for Philly, so get well soon, Rock.
And also, another quick word on Ben Simmons: We're really starting to see how his limitations end up affecting the whole team. Not to harp too much on our star rookie's fairly rare off night -- just seven points, also with that many turnovers -- but when there's not a surfeit of shooting around him, the floor shrinks on Simmons pretty dramatically, and if the team's interior passing and quick-cutting isn't executed at 100% around him, it's pretty tough for them to find easy buckets. The team struggled to generate offense for most of the night, and it's something that's gonna happen occasionally with Simmons running the show, especially without Covington around to handicap his lack of range a little.
All right, now Joel: Holy s--t, what a player. Last night wasn't his best game as a Sixer, certainly -- no one would confuse his final stat line for his now perma-bronzed 46-15-7-7 line against L.A. last month -- but it really might have been his most impressive performance, pro particularly down the stretch.
Hitting those two free throws alone would have been tremendous enough: A center on the line, with the game on the line, on the road, with your team in the midst of a four-game skid? Calmly stepping up and sinking those without getting hyped on too much passion is no small ask, certainly, but JoJo did it with sweat to spare, even ending the game 11-12 from the stripe in total. Over the last five games, Joel is getting to the line 12 times a contest and converting a stunning 87% of those opportunities; exactly what he needs to do to become an absolutely dominant big man in this league.
But that's far from all The Process did late in this one. He also found his struggling co-star Ben Simmons with perfectly timed entry feeds as the Fresh Prince snuck around his defender and the basket for a couple easy deuces. He also torched a toasted Karl-Anthony Towns for a couple big buckets in and around the post, after KAT had proven Embiid's match down low for much of the game's second half. And he hit one absolutely gigantic three to put Philly up seven and essentially seal the game in OT, confidently stepping into it from the top of the arc after passing up open triples all night. He ended the evening with 28 (on 8-16 shooting), 12 and a career-high eight assists, with only two (!!) turnovers on the evening.
The biggest number from Embiid's performance, though: 5. That's how many fouls he ended with -- and also how many fouls he had entering the stretch run of the fourth quarter. In games past, that would either mean JoJo would invariably pick up No. 6 within minutes playing his typically aggressive help defense, or that he'd essentially foul himself out by playing matador defense on the perimeter and backing away from contact at the cup. Credit Embiid, his teammates and Brett Brown for figuring out a way to continue to leverage Jo's defensive strengths (particularly on one expertly played perimeter sequence against Butler) while also handing off some of his post gruntwork to teammates Richaun Holmes and Dario Saric. That meant our franchise player could preserve himself a little while staying in the contest, not costing the squad easy hoops, and still putting the rest of the squad behind the wall of Embiid.
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The late-game performance was particularly meaningful for the Sixers in this one, because maaaaan did we need a W. Four losses in a row, dropping the Ballers all the way back down to .500, with injuries starting to become a major factor: Another loss or two and all the positive momentum from the season's first quarter would've threatened to start slip-sliding away. Now we enter a stretch of three imminently winnable contests -- against OKC, at Chicago, and back home for our Sacramento revenge game -- with a one-game cushion, reason to feel optimistic again, and our recent losing streak only a memory. Stolen Ws llke last night's in Minny are the kind that superstars should occasionally afford you just by virtue of their greatness, and we can only hope it's just the first of countless more to come from our eminently trustworthy Process.