The 76ers, by record and excitement level, are one of the better teams in the NBA. But we really didn’t know how good until they defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves, 120-108, on Saturday.
That’s because they spent their previous five games beating on some of the league’s worst teams, and outwardly enjoyed it. What they had not done during that stretch, through no fault of their own, was beat a team with a winning record.
All that changed against the Timberwolves (42-32) at the Wells Fargo Center. Ben Simmons recorded his 10th triple-double with 15 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds in just 29 minutes, 46 seconds to lead the way. Simmons and the rest of the starters were originally taken out of the game at the end of the quarter, with the Sixers holding on to a comfortable 98-71 lead. The plan was to rest the starters for the final 12 minutes of a game that coach Brett Brown had previously called a “measuring stick.”
After the game, he made a declaration about his point guard.
“He is the stone cold rookie of the year,” Brown said of Simmons.
It’s hard to argue that, just like you no longer can say the Sixers have only beaten bad teams during their six-game winning streak.
Saturday’s win actually marked their first victory against a team with a winning record since a 108-97 road decision over the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 1. The Sixers (42-30) also secured their first winning season since finishing 35-31 in the 2011-12 strike-shortened season. It also marked the most wins they’ve had since going 43-39 during the 2004-05 campaign.
Brown addressed the team about securing a winning record during a post-game speech. Joel Embiid was the third-overall pick in 2014, has experienced first-hand the team’s rebuilding process. He, however, was unable to play the first two years due to foot surgeries.
“When he was giving the speech, I was mainly happy for him,” Embiid said, “and all of the guys that had been through [the team] since the stage of rebuilding stage started.”
He also mentioned former general manager Sam Hinkie, the architect of “The Process.” Then Embiid talked about the guys that were fired and left that played apart of the accomplishing the rebuild.
“But we still got a long way to go,” he said. “Like I said the other day, my new goal is 50 wins. I want to get to that we got to keep pushing.”
This win was a good confidence boost.
The Sixers had lost three straight and five of their previous six games against teams with winning records before Saturday. They are the Eastern Conference’s fourth-place team and are on the verge of clinching their first postseason appearance since the 2011-12 season.
The Sixers had a commanding 29-point lead early in the fourth quarter. However, the Timberwolves’ reserves got the best of the Sixers bench, pulling within 10 points (111-101) on Gorgui Dieng’s jumper with 2 minutes, 58 seconds left.
Starters Simmons, Joel Embiid and Robert Covington came back in to play with reserves Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova 19 seconds later.
The Timberwolves briefly went to a Hack-of-Simmons, fouling the point guard on two straight possessions. He went on to make 3 of 4 foul shots to give the Sixers 114-103 advantage with 2:17 left. The Sixers went on to take the 12-point victory.
Simmons agrees with Brown that he’s the rookie of the year.
“The play I had over the season has been pretty consistent,” he said. “I’m doing some things that haven’t been done in a while.”
His 10 triple-doubles are second only to the rookie record of 26 set by Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson as a Cincinnati Royal during the 1960-61 season.
Embiid had 19 points on 6-for-12 shooting to go with six rebounds, two assists, three blocks and just one turnover. He dominated the head-to-head battle between two of the league’s all-star centers.
Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns scored 15 points and 11 rebounds in three quarters of action. The New Jersey native, however, made just 3 of 15 shots.
Dario Saric added 18 points for the Sixers. The power forward made 3 of 6 three-pointers. Sixth man Marco Belinelli (17 points) and Robert Covington (11) were the team’s other double-digit scorers.
The Sixers had 33 assists on 42 made baskets.
“I think we got a bit better as a team and in our minds, that’s a good thing,” Brown said.