PHILADELPHIA – The Timberwolves’ wild 93-91 loss at Philadelphia on Tuesday resembled so many other defeats this season.
That is, except when young Wolves star Karl-Anthony Towns defended rookie Sixers center Joel Embiid with the game on the line.
Until Tuesday’s near comeback from a 26-point deficit, Towns seldom defended the opposing team’s best big man for meaningful minutes because coach Tom Thibodeau has given that job to Gorgui Dieng.
But on Tuesday, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown paired veteran stretch power forward Ersan Ilyasova with Embiid, intending to create space for the Sixers’ talented big man. So Thibodeau countered with nimbler Nemanja Bjelica against Ilyasova while Dieng sat throughout the fourth quarter.
That left Towns matched against Embiid in an assignment that appeared to fuel him.
His 23-point, 15-rebound, five-assist, two-block night also included a well-earned technical foul late in the third quarter for arguing a call.
“It’s always good to go against a good player,” Towns said. “Obviously, he’s a great shot blocker. Just go out there and compete, putting together some things, just utilizing my game to be as versatile as possible.”
Thibodeau has been using Dieng against the opponent’s heftier and/or better big man without regard to positional designations. He was asked if he has done so because Dieng is a more experienced and versatile defender or to lighten the physical load long-term on Towns, who is needed to do so much offensively.
“Probably a compilation of all,” Thibodeau said. “To me, your wings and your bigs are partners … there’s a lot that goes into it. Over the course of the game, he’s going to be guarding both guys. Both guys are going to be interchangeable. It’s the same thing with our wings.”
On Tuesday, he went position for position with Bjelica and Towns on the floor.
“We were matching up center for center and power forward for power forward,” Thibodeau said.
“It’s how the group performs.”
Both of Towns’ blocked shots Tuesday came while he defended Embiid in the fourth quarter. The second came when he swatted Embiid’s layup with eight seconds left, setting up Ricky Rubio’s three-point shot with 1.6 seconds left, which tied the game for the first time since the opening two minutes.
“He’s great on offense and he can be great on defense, too,” Rubio said. “So we need him to do more stuff like that.”
The Sixers won the game, though, in the very next moment. They ran a precise alley-oop play that created Robert Covington’s falling layup with two-tenths of a second remaining.
Towns said he asked Thibodeau for the defensive assignment.
“I feel very comfortable doing it every night,” he said about defending the opponent’s best big. “I’m just glad he listened to me. I talked to him and said, ‘Just put me on Joel.’ I was happy to take the matchup, especially in crunch time like that. I’m happy with how everything went — obviously, not with the game, but happy with the trust he has in me when I get an idea out there.”
He said he is willing to do so again if Thibodeau asks — or if Towns asks Thibodeau.
“I mean, whatever I’ve got to do for the team to win, whatever I’ve got to do for us to go to the next level,” Towns said. “I’m always willing to do whatever. Individual stats don’t win games, so I’m always for the team stats.”