On a night when teammate Karl-Anthony Towns played 48 minutes in a 118-112 overtime loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday and Jimmy Butler 45½ minutes, the Timberwolves veteran guard offered a suggestion when asked if fatigue was a factor after his team led by nine points with six minutes left to play and still lost.
“We need to get in better shape if we’re tired,” he said. “Do whatever it takes for this team, for this organization to win. If you’re tired, run some extra laps after practice.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau steadfastly shortened his bench rotation to essentially three players these last two weeks while reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica has missed nine games because of sprained foot and a healthy Shabazz Muhammad has been dropped from it altogether.
On Tuesday, Towns, Butler and Andrew Wiggins all played 40 minutes or more in a 53-minute game. Fellow starter Taj Gibson was 18 seconds away from that mark when he fouled out 33 seconds into overtime of a game the Sixers finished with a 41-26 run over the final 11 minutes.
“Minutes are minutes,” Gibson said. “You just have to play through them. The game was about runs. I don’t know, you can say it’s the minutes, you can say a lot of different things.”
Gibson squatted near third quarter’s end, gasping for breath on a night when he, Towns and reserve center Gorgui Dieng took turns defending Sixers big man Joel Embiid, an opponent to whom Gibson gives away 3 inches and probably 30 pounds.
“It’s going to happen when you play hard,” Gibson said. “We play hard. We’re known for playing really physical. They just made their runs. That’s all you can say.”
The Sixers scored on each of their final six possessions to end the fourth quarter, outscoring the Wolves 23-14 in the quarter’s final six minutes after they trailed 86-77 with six minutes left.
Until then, Butler’s virtuoso performance on both ends (38 points, six rebounds, three assists offensively) held leading Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting. Simmons finally freed himself for a cutting dunk and reverse layup in the fourth quarter’s final 77 seconds.
Ultimately, Butler’s two-way play was trumped by Simmons’ perseverance and Embiid’s versatility. JJ Redick’s nine-point fourth quarter didn’t hurt, either.
Embiid proved himself decisive with a Eurostep drive around Towns for a layup that defied physics for such a big man, with a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left that forced overtime and with a timely three-pointer in overtime.
Afterward, Towns blamed himself for the loss, in particular for allowing Embiid to muscle him for position and create the foul call for the two free throws after Butler had made consecutive clutch threes for his team.
“The game’s never over, not in this league,” Butler said. “You’ve got to finish. We didn’t do that. Big shots or not, we didn’t win. It doesn’t count for anything.”
Towns called himself “frustrated” for fouling Embiid.
“I didn’t make the stop I needed to make,” Towns said. “My teammates trust me with the assignment and I failed them. That hurts … I should have made the play I needed to make and not even have it go to overtime. Things like that happen. I have to be better next game.”
Butler dismissed the notion that the loss was Towns’ fault.
“No it’s not, man,” Butler said. “I don’t want to hear that. He didn’t go out there and play 5-on-1. No, he didn’t. We don’t want to hear that. We all could have done better as a team.”
The Wolves made one of their first 22 three-point attempts and finished 5-for-29 while the Sixers went 11-for-26. They held a 12-2 advantage in turnovers at halftime, finished with a 24-10 edge and still lost because the Sixers executed better near game’s end and moved the ball better.
The Sixers had 32 assists on 40 made baskets, the Wolves had 19 assists on 44 makes.
“Another one that you look back and say we should have won if we would have done this, if we could have done that,” Butler said. “The same thing for us.”