PHILADELPHIA – Perhaps it was years of frustration boiling over in his matchup with Joel Embiid. Perhaps it was just losing your cool in the moment. Perhaps it was sending a message to the rest of the NBA that he isn’t the soft player some make him out to be.
Whatever it was, it led to a rarely seen moment from Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns on Wednesday, the moment when he and Embiid, much to the delight of the Philadelphia crowd, engaged in a fight, skirmish, tussle — whatever your term — away from the play during the third quarter of the 76ers’ 117-95 victory over the Wolves that got both players ejected.
It was atypical for Towns, but a moment that seemed inevitable to some teammates.
“It was bound to happen,” Wolves forward Robert Covington said.
Or as always-candid guard Jeff Teague said, the incident might have officially announced to the rest of the league that this is a new Karl-Anthony Towns.
“As you can see tonight, he’s got a lot of fight in him,” Teague said. “Last year, I wouldn’t say he wouldn’t do that or he would’ve took it, but he’s here to make a statement. I think tonight it just showed a lot of heart. I’m riding with him.”
It came with 6 minutes, 42 seconds remaining in the third as Tobias Harris was attempting a layup at one end of the floor. Embiid and Towns were left at the other end, jostling with each other after Embiid delivered a hard double team on Towns.
They got to shoving, and in a point that could loom large as it relates to additional discipline for Towns, Towns might have thrown a missed punch with his right arm before wrapping it around Embiid’s head in a headlock.
“I just did what I had to do …” Embiid said. “It happens.”
The two eventually fell to the floor in a mutual headlock. The Sixers’ Ben Simmons was on top of Towns and appeared to have a chokehold on him, but Simmons stayed in the game.
When asked after the game if he was throwing a punch or attempting to grab Embiid, Towns said: “It was competitive. Competitive basketball being played.”
That was his default answer for most questions about the fight — it was a competitive game.
“That’s all it was,” Towns said. “There was a lot of great things as a team we could learn and really go out there and try to beat Washington [on Saturday].”
While he was waiting for the ejection, Towns delivered a message to his teammates by the bench.
“I just wanted us to stay focused,” Towns said. “We weren’t playing our system.”
The Wolves were behind all night, as the 76ers’ length bothered them on both ends. Philadelphia outrebounded them 56-34 and led by as much as 25. Embiid still led the 76ers with 19 points. Andrew Wiggins had 19 for the Wolves, who did cut in to Philadelphia’s lead after Towns left.
Towns’ teammates placed more importance on the fight than he did.
“It’s just our attitude, man,” guard Josh Okogie said. “We’re not going to be run over. We didn’t want the outcome we have. But we’re going to be tough.”
Added Teague, “You get a little fire under you seeing your best player go out fighting, literally.”
The fire had cooled in Towns after the game, as he was smiling with family and friends before boarding the team shuttle. When asked if he was concerned about additional discipline from the league, Towns said: “I’m just concerned about Washington, that’s all I’m worried about.”
He might not play in that game, depending on the league’s reviews, but if he doesn’t, perhaps his teammates will carry the torch he ignited.