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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Wolves preview with Jake Paynting

Getting a little insight about Saturday’s opponent.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Moving forward, Liberty Ballers will conduct a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Jake Paynting, who covers the Minnesota Timberwolves at his Substack, “Howls and Growls.”

What’s one key matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

It’s hard to look past the matchup between the (hopefully) returning Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns. We know their prickly history and it always feels like they’re chomping at the bit to renew a rivalry that has transcended the court. It’s awesome to see Embiid back in the fold, and in a grudge match nonetheless. In terms of the on-court consequences, the Timberwolves haven’t been able to grab wins over the Sixers lately and they aren’t going to stand a chance this time around if they can’t stifle Embiid. Conversely, getting Towns going is always Minnesota’s best chance to succeed. It seems more likely than ever that the winner of the individual matchup will walk away with a win.

It’s been a weird few weeks for Minnesota. A 1-8 stretch dropped it to 4-9 before a 5-game win streak pushed it to 9-9 and squarely in the playoff hunt (9-10 now). What’s been the defining factors for those stretches and which one is more emblematic of this team moving forward?

Strangely enough, Minnesota’s ability to play halfcourt offense has defined both the peaks and the valleys of its season thus far. When the team was floundering, the ball was sticky. Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell were struggling to figure out ways to divide their high-usage styles effectively and that led to a bogged down offense stuffed with inefficient isolation possessions.

However, during the five-game win streak, it seemed to have worked out some of the kinks. Minnesota will inevitably fall back into some of those bad habits throughout games. But the trio and head coach Chris Finch have found ways to employ a more synergistic offense and maximize Russell’s shooting and playmaking, Edwards’ downhill dominance, and Towns’ tentpole offensive game. Minnesota’s team defense remains surprisingly stingy, so when its core clicks as halfcourt offensive linchpins, it gives this squad the best chance to win. When it doesn’t, things get stodgy.

What’s clicking so well defensively for this team?

It starts with the scheme. After years of trying and failing at a rigid drop coverage scheme that saw Towns bombarded with downhill attackers, Finch has moved his big man up to the level of the screen and attacked ball-handlers with two players. That allows Minnesota to optimize Towns, but it has done even more for the players behind him. Jarred Vanderbilt is putting together an All-Defense-level season, Jaden McDaniels continues to seamlessly oscillate between point-of-attack pest and gangly low-man rim-protector, and Patrick Beverley glues it all together with his leadership and production.

Now that the team has seen the scheme work and the personnel perform, everybody is buying in. The rotations are more crisp. The communication is louder. The energy is more palpable. It’s certainly a refreshing change.

The Wolves were billed as a potent offensive team but that’s not been the case. What’re the issues and how fixable are they?

Along with the aforementioned halfcourt inconsistencies, a lot of Minnesota’s volatility offensively has been born out of three-point shooting variance. Aside from the ever-reliable Towns, usual snipers like Russell and Malik Beasley have found consistent rhythm hard to come by. Because the team lacks the personnel to put pressure on the rim at a high rate, it needs to knock down its outside shots. The Wolves are taking the most triples per game (43.2), but are only making them at the 20th-best clip (33.4 percent). Things are trending upward of late, but it’s been a tight rope to walk for the season as a whole.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

Everything to do with Minnesota’s defense has been pleasantly surprising. At times, it still feels like it’s built on a foundation of smoke that will blow away with the next gust of wind. Within that defense, the improvement and buy-in of Edwards, Beasley and Russell has been an enormous boon. Those three previously putrid defenders are consistently fueling positive outcomes and that’s huge.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

So far, it’s been Minnesota’s inability to close out games earlier in the season. Brutal losses to Orlando and New Orleans have helped to plateau its win-loss record and a fourth-quarter collapse against Memphis only added to that pain. Late-game execution has plagued the Wolves for many years and it’s reared its ugly head a few times already this season. With improved composure in very winnable games, this team might be firmly in the top six of the Western Conference and not clinging on to a play-in position.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this game?

You can’t go wrong with watching Anthony Edwards. Pure Hollywood personality intertwining with legitimately frightening scoring potential and a budding all-around game. He is still searching for game-to-game consistency. But he is box office when he is rolling and he is rolling more often than he did in his rookie season: high-flying dunks, jaw-dropping shot creation and defensive disruption that turn into transition opportunities. His best traits haven’t always translated into wins, but they sure do make for good viewing.

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