PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Joel Embiid’s most valuable role was as a decoy.
Robert Covington made a fall-away shot off an inbounds pass set up by Embiid’s screen with 0.2 seconds left to give the Philadelphia 76ers a 93-91 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night.
“We’ve been working on that for a long time,” Embiid said.
With everyone on the Minnesota bench to the fans in the last row expecting Embiid to get the ball, he instead set the high screen on Andrew Wiggins that helped free Covington for the acrobatic winner . Dario Saric hit Covington, who had been booed most of the game, for the decisive bucket that sent the crowd of 17,124 into a frenzy.
The 76ers couldn’t even believe they won - the scoreboard read Wolves 94, Sixers 93 after the final horn.
The Sixers needed the late basket after they blew a 26-point lead and seemed headed to overtime. Ricky Rubio, just a 26 percent 3-point shooter, buried one with 1.6 seconds left that tied it at 91.
Covington, who missed all 11 shots last week at Utah, was booed after he airballed an early 3 and the fans never stopped as each shot clanked off the rim.
“I’m never going to give in to what others say about me,” Covington said.
Embiid, who led the Sixers with 25 points, again showed that the NBA’s top rookie just might play on one of the league’s worst teams. Embiid has won over Philly with his humor on social media and colorful quotes as he chases A-list celebrities for potential dates.
He’ll be a bigger hit if he helps the Sixers win more games.
Embiid waved his arms and encouraged fans to get louder when they chanted his nickname “The Process,” and he later baited Karl-Anthony Towns into a technical foul.
When the Sixers’ 26-point lead was whittled to 11 late in the third quarter, Embiid made a steal and fed Nik Stauskas for a 3-pointer that seemed to steady the offense.
Towns had 23 points and 15 rebounds for the Timberwolves, and Zach LaVine scored 28. Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said the Timberwolves continued to struggle playing a complete 48 minutes - especially that final fateful second.
“We wanted the ball to go away from the basket. That didn’t happen,” he said. “We needed some help on the curl and we didn’t get it.”
Embiid, who sat out two seasons recovering from a broken foot, was named before the game the Eastern Conference rookie of the month for the second time this season. Embiid averaged 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in 10 games - numbers that could be even better had the Sixers not placed minutes restrictions on him and held him out in at least one game of back-to-backs.
“He feels like this is his program,” coach Brett Brown said.
Even with concern over the 7-footer’s health, the Sixers have made a big push for fans to tweet, hashtag and vote Embiid onto the East All-Star team.
“I think he deserves it,” Brown said. “I think the health risk is becoming increasingly less, as I’m advised.”
Embiid’s popularity is soaring in a city desperate to cheer for competitive basketball.
The big man had fans going wild in the second quarter. He pump-faked at the 3-point line, drove the lane and dished to Nerlens Noel on his right. Noel hit him back for a shot and was fouled.
Towns airballed a 3 during a Minnesota run in the third, and Embiid was quick to pounce. Towns cursed near a referee as Embiid gleefully egged him on for the technical. Embiid, naturally, made the free throw.
He stripped former Kansas teammate Wiggins later in the quarter and hit Stauskas for the 3. Embiid’s dunk over Towns late in the fourth made it 88-80, and he flexed his muscle a bit and cupped his hand to his ear to hear the crowd like Allen Iverson.
The Sixers have struggled with which natural center to pair with Embiid. Jahlil Okafor sat out the first quarter and Noel was benched for the third as the Sixers try to find the right big man to match with Embiid for the long haul.
Timberwolves: Assistant coach Ed Pinckney enjoyed the 1985 and 2016 national championship banners that were raised to the rafters this season to honor Villanova. Pinckney, a star on the ‘85 title team, said two banners looked good but “three would be beautiful.” … The Timberwolves missed all eight 3s in the first half.
76ers: The Sixers played without Richaun Holmes (concussion), Sergio Rodriguez (sprained left ankle) and Gerald Henderson (sore left hip).
Wiggins, who averages 21.7 points per game, was held to eight. He missed 13 of 15 shots and three 3s.
Timberwolves: Head to Washington on Friday night.
76ers: Try for their first three-game winning streak of the season Friday at Boston.
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