Before the season, Brett Brown used the phrase “Bully-Ball” to describe how he wants the team to play this season. Those words were taken as literally as they could be last night, as Joel Embiid and Karl Anthony-Towns staged a wrestling match in the 3rd quarter in the midst of 22-point 76ers victory.
The showdown between the two behemoths was certainly the headliner, but the smash-mouth play and attitude was a theme the entire night on the 76ers’ end. Philadelphia made it a point from the jump to impose their will both in the post and on the glass against an undersized Minnesota team.
Whether it was Embiid, Al Horford or Tobias Harris, the 76ers relentlessly put their bigger players in the post and asked them to go to work. The strategy was successful, as the team took 44 percent of their shots at the rim and converted on 72 percent of those attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Timberwolves have had a great start to their season on the back of their spread offense, but their lack of size was too much to overcome against Philadelphia’s skyscrapers. Embiid started off the rim onslaught early with this immediate power move on Towns.
That shoulder Embiid sent to Towns’ sternum set the tone for the rest of the night.
The Timberwolves also displayed a hesitance to double team on defense unless there was a clear mismatch. And even then, the double often came too late. On this play, Shabazz Napier gets switched onto Harris in the post, but Covington was a step late on the help and Harris converted the easy bucket.
Napier on Harris was an extreme example, but Philadelphia hunted mismatches the entire night. The Timberwolves seemed comfortable switching their bigger wings on the 76ers’ post threats and allowing them to go one-on-one. Those switches not only opened the door for post-ups, but they were a key factor in the 76ers grabbing 16 offensive rebounds. Al Horford had a team and season-high 16 total rebounds in the game, with five coming on the offensive end.
On this play, Josh Okogie gets switched onto Horford. He does a good job of fighting to prevent the entry pass, so Richardson attacks the basket. Horford uses his size advantage to grab the rebound and draws the ensuing foul.
Noted offensive board hunter James Ennis also got into the mix with what may have been his best game of the young season. The reserve wing snatched 11 rebounds, including five on the offensive end.
Coach Brown, when asked about what has made Ennis such a good offensive rebounder after the game, said: “it’s the encouragement from our coaching staff that if you’re that good at it then continue to do it.”
“Most times, when you look at who are go guys and get that guys, it’s not smalls,” Brown followed up. “Traditionally, 4s and 5s go to the boards … with him, we give him a little freedom to go dance.”
The 76ers out-rebounded the Timberwolves 56-34 and tallied 30 second-chance points, the type of points that could prove key in keeping their offense afloat during the course of the season.
Of course, the size advantage also played a role, as it has all season, on the defensive end. Armed with a number of large and strong defenders, the 76ers felt comfortable switching pick-and-rolls and running with the match-ups those switches created. This was likely done to prevent the Timberwolves, specifically Towns, from firing up three-pointers, which had been a theme of their explosive early season offense. And, while Towns had an efficient night before his ejection, he only got up seven shot attempts. The Timberwolves were also held to just 10-35 three-point shooting on the night.
Basketball Insiders asked Horford after the game about the switching and his thoughts on the communication defensively. Horford the perfectionist he is, gave a more-than-apt answer.
“The communication was good, but it was still not great, to my standards,” Horford said. “We’re still getting better, our defense was good, the effort was there.”
“We got a little sloppy fouling a lot in the third, slowing the game down. So we need to be better with that.”
In order to find success this season, the 76ers must continue to exert their size advantage on both sides of the ball. Defensively, their size has already paid dividends as Philadelphia has amounted to one of the league’s best outfits. But, offensively, the team has looked disjointed and has struggled to find any semblance of rhythm early on.
As a team, the 76ers lack shooting and perimeter creation, so it will be difficult to generate efficient offense on a consistent basis. But the template for putting up points is there, and was on full display Wednesday night; a relentless attack in the post and reckless abandon when it comes to offensive rebounds.
Their physical style may make it hard for the 76ers to make many friends — Towns, who has a history of beef with Embiid, certainly took exception to early in the third quarter — but they aren’t out to make friends. They’re here to win games.
And, of course, Embiid’s tuft with Towns won’t do them any favors there. The fracas ultimately led to both players being suspended for two games, leaving the 76ers without their star center for the start of a tough western road trip. So, while having a Bad Boys-esque team back in the fray is an exciting thing for the league, Embiid would be wise to steer clear of any extracurriculars as the season drags on. The team will need him in the lineup to reach the goal of home-court advantage in the playoffs.
That said, the 76ers, as the only undefeated group left in the NBA, have clearly impressed, the game against Minnesota a mere glimpse of what they can do when it’s all clicking. If the offense can continue to improve on the back of their physical identity, Philadelphia could emerge as a clear favorite to reach, or even win, the NBA Finals.
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