It should have been another easy night for the Sixers starters, who for the third game in a row built up enough of a lead against Minnesota that victory was a given and resting the fourth quarter looked like an inevitability.
“We don’t want to go back in, we want to see our guys play and finish out the game because we know they’re capable of that,” Simmons said after the 120-108 win. “But for them to not do that, it’s kind of annoying. We’ve got to get on top of that and everybody has to be ready to play.”
With 1 minute, 24 seconds left in the third quarter, T.J. McConnell came into the game for Simmons, the last remaining starter on the court, and the Sixers’ stars got comfortable on the bench.
Instead of watching the minutes tick by with the reserve unit keeping the Timberwolves out of striking distance, the starters watched the fruits of their labor diminish as Minnesota’s bench went on a tear.
“We were just searching at that point,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The starters were pretty flat so [the bench] gave us good energy.”
With 2 minutes, 39 seconds left to play Sixers coach Brett Brown was forced to bring his starters back into the game to salvage what was a blowout.
Simmons, who had racked up his 10th triple-double by midway through the third quarter, Joel Embiid, and Robert Covington came back on the court after the Timberwolves cut the Sixers lead down from 29 points to just 10.
“That’s pretty frustrating and pretty degrading too,” McConnell said. “When you’re out there and you have to bring the guys that should be resting back onto the floor and your head coach loses trust in the group it sucks.”
In the fourth quarter, before the starters returned, the Timberwolves forced four turnovers while committing zero and had outscored the Sixers 30-13
“We had the opportunity to pull out a miracle there, our guys started making shots,” Jeff Teague said.
“You wish you didn’t have to,” Brown said of the decision to bring starters back into the game. “It’s this close to the end of the year and I don’t feel so much at that stage in the mood for letting people have experiences. I want to win.”
The Timberwolves, currently 7th in the Western Conference standings, are fighting in a tight race to get their first playoff berth since the 2003-04 season and a win over the Sixers would have gone a long way in helping to secure their position.
But after the Sixers starters returned Minnesota started fouling to gain more ground, but Simmons, Embiid, and Marco Belinelli made enough of their free throws to keep the Timberwolves out of reach.
Even though the Sixers came away with the win, stretching their win streak to six and improving to 42-30 on the season, the mood in the locker room was reserved, with some reflecting on why things went so wrong in the fourth.
“Got to look at the stuff you can do better and move on from it,” McConnell said. “Hopefully get another chance because if I’m the coach I’m not putting that group back out there after that.”