2016-17 Season

76ers 93, Wolves 91: For Whom the Liberty Bell Tolls

It tolls for thee, Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves fell in a grotesque exhibition of something resembling basketball to the Philadelphia 76ers 93-91. The Sixers simply out-hustled, out-muscled, and out-willed the Wolves for nearly three quarters of the game, at one point building up a 26-point lead, before Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine came alive towards the tail end of the third.

Nerlens Noel, the Sixers’ controversial (for reasons both in and out of his power) big man, was the team’s initial catalyst, providing stout interior defense, running the floor with purpose, and catching multiple lobs for dunks. He brought an energy that simply was not matched by the Wolves, and it transferred over to his teammates. Ersan Ilyasova, a fine, but not really threatening stretch four, and Nik Stauskas, better known by his moniker Sauce Castillo, torched the Wolves combining for 27 points and 5/13 from three.

For the vast majority of the game the Wolves played like a boy who was just thrown into the deep end of the pool and doesn’t know how to swim, but instead of fighting and trying to keep his head above the surface, he just sinks and waits for the lifeguard to save him. The team seemed devoid of energy and desire to play basketball. Their shot selection would generously be described as poor, all aspects of their defense was uninspired, and the general looks on their faces were defeated and disengaged.

It’s moments like these, when they’re getting wiped on the road during the dark, cold days of January against an inferior team, when the Wolves could really use more veteran leadership. This has been a talking point and harped on for the entirety of the season to this point, but tonight this need reared its ugly head. The Wolves need a veteran presence that can help reel the team in and get them to focus when things aren’t going their way in an attempt to right the sinking ship. The Wolves don’t have that kind of guy and we have seen the ship sink time and time again as a result, at least in part.

Ricky Rubio is unquestionably the team’s leader at the moment, but he needs more help. Ideally you would like one of, as Tom Thibodeau calls them, the team’s core three to step up to the plate, but Towns speaks too often in platitudes, Wiggins is quiet, and LaVine is the third banana. These aren’t necessarily bad things and they shouldn’t really be held against them, but at this time none of the three are in the position or right mindset to become a leader for this team. I think Towns, and to a certain extent LaVine, will become vocal leaders with time and Wiggins will most likely always be a leader by example (believe it or not, being a leader by example is actually a good thing, contrary to popular belief), but they just aren’t there yet; they’re too inexperienced and perhaps too young.

How ironic is it that I bring up these points again after a Wolves’ game against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team notorious for #TheProcess? The Process was systematically designed to accrue talent and diamonds in the rough by way of the draft and undrafted free agents, essentially building a team of youngsters. For the past few years, it has been talked about how perhaps the greatest weakness of The Process was its neglect of the importance of veteran leadership and its overvaluing of talent; a common talking point was that the Sixers needed to acquire veterans if they ever wanted to become successful.

The Wolves have essentially fallen into similar results as The Process, albeit in a much different fashion. They are the league’s youngest team and have no true veterans to lean upon and learn from. Cole Aldrich has been a journeyman role player, same for Brandon Rush. John Lucas III has never had a real impact in the league, and Nemanja Bjelica is just as inexperienced as the others.

Veteran leadership is a valuable attribute on any team and while it may not be as big of a factor for teams who are in the playoff hunt and are contenders, it is invaluable for a young team like the Wolves. Just look at the Milwaukee Bucks. Sure, Giannis Antetokounmpo (HUMBLE BRAG: I spelled that right on the first try.) and Jabari Parker run the show in Milwaukee, but Khris Middleton, though he hasn’t played this year, is already in his 5th season and they have wily vets Jason Terry and Mirza Teletović coming off the bench for them. The Wolves could really use a Jason Terry or Mirza Teletović right now.

In the end, Joel Embiid proved to be too much for the Wolves. He tallied 25 points, eight rebounds (five offensive), three assists, two blocks, and one steal. Watching him play was an absolute joy, if not a little frustrating because of the way he toyed with the Wolves at times. The power and grace with which he moves is not unlike that of Karl-Anthony Towns, but at the same time it’s totally different. When you compare Towns and Embiid side-to-side it becomes obvious that Embiid’s 7-foot, 250-pound frame is much larger than Towns’ 7-foot, 244-pound frame. The only way to put it is that Embiid has man muscles, and Towns does not quite yet.

Towns had himself a nice game once he started to play well in the second half, in part due to egging on by Embiid. He finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists and, along with LaVine who added 28 points and three boards, was a major catalyst behind the Wolves clawing themselves back into the game. After a heroic, unexpectedly expected game-tying three from Rubio with roughly one second left, Sixers forward Robert Covington, who played phenomenal defense on Wiggins all night and was booed by the home crowd because of his poor three-point shooting, tipped in a lob pass from out of bounds for the victory.

The Wolves’ inconsistent play is not to be unexpected for a young team and will continue until they either gain experience or obtain some veteran leadership. Only time will tell which avenue Tom Thibodeau decides to take.

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4 thoughts on “76ers 93, Wolves 91: For Whom the Liberty Bell Tolls

  1. We’re all out of ugly after that one.

    Note who got us back into the hole we dug–LaVine, with the help of a not particularly wily, but very determined Towns. No Wiggins on that list…

    Good for Rubio to hit that shot, and good for Towns to trust that an open Rubio three is better than a contested, off balance three of his own.

    It wasn’t just energy. We look out of sync on offense, with both no idea what a good shot is, but also no visible system to manufacture good shots for the players. On defense we are confused looking and one step behind on everything. But also energy…

    In some past games we’ve done a better job of using action and ‘plays’ to manufacture quality shots. But the problem that rarely gets better game to game is our inability to decipher what a good shot is and what a bad shot is. Frustration and lack of focus only make this worse. But it’s not a problem that has been addressed. I don’t mean that Thibs never talks about shot selection to the players, but the degree to which this is being controlled in the right way is questionable. For instance, if Thibs wasn’t OK with Towns taking 6 threes a game and making 0 to 1 of them, I don’t think you’d see it (or at least you’d see a lot more yelling and stomping right after Towns 3’s…). I like that Towns can shoot the three, but 6 a game? In a deep slump with them, often early in the shot clock? How much of this apparent lack of shot selection learning is on the player’s shoulders and how much of it is on the coaching staff?

    On the vet leadership, it’s clearly Thibs’ reasoning that such things get in the way of developmental time. Don’t get me wrong, a reason Rush and Hill sit so much is clearly due to shortcomings in leadership and example making. A wall in the way of our young leadership developing is that LaVine has the best, most winning attitude of the big three, but has been forced into a third banana role, mostly due to the relentless struggle our franchise is marching on to make Wiggins a star and #1 option. As this was done (one can hardly blame Thibs because Flip and Mitchell also forced this to different degrees) it created tunnel vision that has overlooked LaVine and what he’s become (see how he got us back into this game like a vet). Towns does speak in platitudes and I expect him to be a good leader someday, but he isn’t yet. So, we have a leadership void, but Thibs could show more trust in LaVine and allow guys like Rush and Hill some situational minutes to calm us down. I don’t think he thinks that’s good development, but I do.

    I got pretty mad when no one came back for the inbound and we turned it over. That’s a sign of something wrong in your franchise. We played against an ugly sloppy team and raced them to the bottom so fast we made a crater. But that one moment said something major about the lack of teaching or sinking in of teaching going on behind the scenes. I’ve not seen anything like that in a long time.

    Embiid is good. He’s big! To my eyes it looks like Towns is 6’11”, and Embiid is 7’1″ with those man muscles Lucas speaks of. He’s not as coordinated and creative as Towns and a notable rift between them is in footwork. Towns can dance. But Embiid obviously has more power game and that little extra height makes blocks that much easier (neither are good defenders in the technical sense yet). Towns held his own in the big picture, but needed to do that more or less the whole game, not it fits and starts.

    Guess the Dunn show was just a one game thing for now… yeesh

    Thibs seems to have gone into zen mode on all of this, somehow getting more patient about this team as the season has worn on, not less. Early, his pent up anger suggested a major move was possible at any time for this man not used to losing. Nowadays, the most basic adjustments to win or improve our lot seem out of the question, because it might take a second of floor developmental time away from someone. It almost resembles a tank mentality. There are things that could be done with this existing roster to improve the team that aren’t being allowed for the sake of some developmental scheme that has netted no improvement thus far. Obviously coaching is something for more patient men than I, but this is an interesting shift I’ve noted, and it is trying my patience as a fan.

  2. I read the game wraps and analysis and watch the highlights, but because I live in a different timezone, I don’t get to watch many games. I watched this one.

    My expectations were to see a Wolves unit that was playing hard and making lots of mistakes. Based on what I read, I might expect some long twos and some stagnant ball movement resulting in transition buckets, and on the defensive side I might expect some lapses on backdoor cuts. But I would expect them to cut the image of a team that played hard and lost.

    What I actually saw was a Towns and especially a Wiggins that didn’t try very hard. Wiggins would sink way, way down in the paint on the weak side and he gave up like six or seven open threes in a row, which were all somehow missed. It was like he was totally checked out and didn’t realize that he was repeating the same mistake over and over.

    I’m surprised how bad Wiggins was. The Wolves made most of their run without him on the court. When he was on the court during the run, he did mostly awful things, and his body langauge was bad. If I was the GM, I would not hesitate to trade Wiggins, because he looks pretty toxic. The risk is getting high, especially if his demeanor is rubbing off on teammates. You could build a nice team around Towns, Lavine, and Rubio, and whatever you fetch from Wiggins, and losing that trade wouldn’t be the end of the world either.

    Lavine on the other hand is going to be great. He’s determined and athletic, and there is no way he doesn’t become an above average defender… because he cares. You can see it on the court.

    But there isn’t much reason to think Wiggins will ever be very good. His mediocre across-the-board stats match his demeanor, and that’s real bad.

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