Preview: Wolves at 76ers
There was some expectation heading into this season that the Minnesota Timberwolves would be able to challenge for a playoff berth under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau.
Instead, the Timberwolves are trying to dig out from the rubble of a wretched start heading into Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia.
Minnesota (11-23) has split its last 10 games but frittered away a 12-point halftime lead on Sunday en route to a 95-89 home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Blazers guard C.J. McCollum poured in a career-high 43 points and Portland outscored Minnesota 32-15 in the third quarter to take command.
Thibodeau, the former Chicago Bulls coach, said his team had “a total breakdown” in the third quarter.
Minnesota is now 9-11 in games in which it has established a double-figure lead.
“The thing that is concerning is the big halftime leads that we don’t protect,” he said, “and we don’t come out with the urgency and the understanding of playing a whole 48 minutes and how important that is and how hard you have to play.”
The Timberwolves do not have any problems at the offensive end. Andrew Wiggins (22.1), Karl-Anthony Towns (21.5) and Zach LaVine (20.9) are all among the league scoring leaders, and Towns also averages 11.5 rebounds per game.
Rather, Minnesota has struggled on defense, which has always been Thibodeau’s forte. The Timberwolves are 26th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 108 points per 100 possessions.
Defense is just one of the many problems facing the Sixers (8-24), who are tied with Brooklyn for the league’s worst record. Philadelphia is 21st in the league in defensive efficiency (106.0) but dead last in offensive efficiency (99.1).
Rookie center Joel Embiid continues to excel, leading the team and all first-year players in scoring (18.9), rebounding (7.3) and blocked shots (2.4). He has been particularly effective starting alongside veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova (14.8).
Philadelphia is 4-5 when the two start together. That includes last Friday’s 124-122 victory in Denver, in which both scored 23 points, allowing the Sixers to salvage the finale of a four-game road trip.
“Oh, man, he brings a lot since he got here,” Embiid said, per the Philadelphia Inquirer, of Ilyasova, who was acquired in a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 1. “He’s a stretch four who plays defense all over the place, taking charges. He’s all over the place.
“I love having him next to me.”
The Sixers, who have a glut of young, highly drafted big men, had experimented with a lineup that included Embiid and Jahlil Okafor but went 1-5 in those games. Okafor did not play in Denver because of a sore left hamstring.
Sergio Rodriguez (left ankle sprain) also sat out that game. Richaud Holmes has missed the last four with a concussion, and Gerald Henderson has been out the last two with a sore left hip.
The Sixers will be looking to even the season series with Minnesota, having been routed by the Timberwolves 110-86 on Nov. 17. Wiggins scored 35 points and Towns added 25, and each claimed 10 rebounds. Embiid managed just 10 points.