PHILADELPHIA – If Philadelphia star rookie Joel Embiid sought “payback time” on Tuesday night, then his 76ers’ careening 93-91 victory over the Timberwolves might have been the cruelest kind.
Trailing by 26 points early in the third quarter and finally tied after Ricky Rubio’s three-pointer with 1.6 seconds left, the Wolves lost on Robert Covington’s falling, alley-oop with two-tenths of a second remaining, just when overtime loomed.
Until then, a hometown audience sizable for a Tuesday winter’s night booed Covington every time he missed a three-point shot, which he did eight times, while also being unappreciated as he helped hold Wolves star Andrew Wiggins to 2-for-15 shooting.
But on this final shot from mere feet away, they cheered mightily. The Wolves drew up a desperate play that didn’t nearly work with such scant time left.
“Comeback don’t mean nothing if we don’t win,” Wiggins said. “No one remembers a comeback.”
Embiid likely won’t forget, not after he suggested Monday the Wolves “punked” his team with their physical play during the Sixers’ lopsided loss at Target Center in November on TNT, not after he called for some comeuppance Tuesday.
On Sunday, the Wolves played a fine first half, a lousy second half and lost at home to Portland. On Tuesday, they flip-flopped halves, trailing 22-12, 36-20 and then 68-42 just two minutes into the third quarter before they fought back, at first with a 19-2 run while Embiid was mostly off the floor.
“That has been our biggest challenge, to be a 48-minute team,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said, “and we’re nowhere near that.”
Tuesday’s 48 minutes ultimately came down to the final two seconds, when Rubio’s three tied the score for the first time since the opening two minutes and the 76ers countered splendidly after a timeout, running coach Brett Brown’s sideline inbounds play his team had practiced just Monday to perfection.
“They draw up a great play, but we put ourselves in that situation,” Rubio said. “We can’t come in here and don’t show up in the first half.”
Covington took teammate Dario Saric’s faithful lob pass and laid it in as he fell as Wiggins couldn’t follow him around Embiid’s screen.
“You really have to have a lot of guts to throw the ball,” Brown said. “It’s sort of the last thing we talked about: Have the guts to throw it. If you see it, throw it and he did.”
The Wolves elected to leave Saric’s pass undefended, which gave them five men to defend four Sixers around the paint. While Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns crowded Embiid, Nemanja Bjelica and Zach LaVine got rubbed out of the play in a scrum on the play’s far side.
“You know it’s something towards the basket,” Thibodeau said. “We want to get the ball to go away from the basket and obviously that didn’t happen.”
When the teams played in November, Embiid’s former Kansas teammate Wiggins delivered a 35-point, 10-rebound performance and Towns ravaged the 76ers badly enough that Embiid engaged mocking followers in a Twitter battle over the big-man mismatch, even if Towns rarely defended him.
On Tuesday, Towns and Embiid battled each other in the final minutes after Brown paired stretch power forward Ersan Ilyasoya with Embiid often and Thibodeau played the nimbler Bjelica instead of Gorgui Dieng at game’s end.
Afterward, Thibodeau credited rookie Kris Dunn’s second-unit play for fueling the comeback and praised Rubio’s pick-and-roll play, even though it all was for naught.
“You don’t get no consolation, there are no consolation prizes,” Towns said.
“This ain’t fourth-grade, pee-wee football. This is the NBA. This is a man’s league. There’s a winner and there’s a loser, and today we were the losers.”