MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Tobias Harris scored 25 points for Philadelphia in Jimmy Butler’s jeer-filled return to Minnesota, helping the 76ers hang on to beat the Timberwolves 118-109 on Saturday and move one step closer toward solidifying the No. 3 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Ben Simmons pitched in 20 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for the Sixers (49-27), who stretched their lead over Boston and Indiana to 4½ games with eight games to go. They’re still four games behind second-place Toronto.
Rookie Jonah Bolden filled in for Joel Embiid and posted a career-best 19 points for the Sixers, who overcame the precautionary absence of their All-Star center and a quiet night by Butler (12 points on 4-for-17 shooting with 13 rebounds and five assists) to start a three-game road trip with a quality win.
The crowd was plenty loud, booing Butler every time he touched the ball in his first appearance at Target Center since he forced his way out of Minnesota with the trade that sent him to Philadelphia for Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless. Wolves fans even jeered him as he walked off the court clutching his lower back in the first quarter, an injury that didn’t require him to leave the game.
Sixers teammate Amir Johnson even joined in the fun during introductions, playfully joining the jeering and pointing both thumbs down as a grinning Butler jogged onto the court before the opening tip. Carly Simon’s pop song, “You’re So Vain,” played over the sound system.
Andrew Wiggins scored 24 points and Karl-Anthony Towns had 21 points for the Wolves, who craved another crack at Butler and the Sixers. Their first try was on Jan. 15 in Philadelphia, nine days after coach Tom Thibodeau was fired and replaced by Ryan Saunders. That game quickly turned into the worst of the season for the Wolves , who gave up 83 points in the first half on the way to a 149-107 defeat that still makes them wince more than two months later.
The Sixers made eight 3-pointers in the first quarter for the second straight game, the most allowed in the opening frame by the Timberwolves in franchise history, and surged to a 41-20 lead that looked a lot like that earlier blowout. The Sixers still held a 15-point advantage past the midpoint of the third quarter, when the reserves sparked a spirited rally for the Wolves one night after their one-point overtime win over defending NBA champion Golden State .
Anthony Tolliver’s third 3-pointer of the game cut the lead to 92-85 early in the fourth quarter, and a one-handed floater in the lane by Cameron Reynolds brought the Timberwolves within 97-94. Wiggins used a finger roll to reduce the deficit to 105-102, but Towns fouled Harris as he made a jumper and complained enough about the call to get a technical, too. That turned into a four-point possession for the Sixers, who outscored the Wolves 13-6 over the final 5:10.
Towns has had some of his worst performances against Embiid, with by far his lowest career scoring average against the Sixers, and he was a relative nonfactor until the fourth quarter. Embiid stayed home from this three-game road trip to rest his left knee.
76ers: Simmons had five assists by the end of the first quarter, hitting that mark for a league-high-tying 65th time, matching Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, out of 74 games this season. ... James Ennis III (bruised right quadriceps) returned from a two-game absence.
Timberwolves: Wiggins reached the 20-point mark for the sixth straight game. ... With Covington, Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague all shut down for the remainder of the season with injuries and Luol Deng and Taj Gibson still out, too, the Wolves were short-handed enough to sign forward Mitch Creek, a 26-year-old Australian who played in four games for the Nets, to a 10-day contract.
ALL THE BEST
Butler has never publicly revealed his exact reasoning for seeking the trade, and he told reporters before the game that he remains fond of many people in Minnesota, particularly Saunders and backup point guard Tyus Jones.
“Those are my guys, forever and ever, man,” said Butler, offering an unsolicited endorsement for Saunders to drop the interim tag. “He deserves it. He works so incredibly hard, and he wants to do right by everybody.”
76ers: Play at Dallas on Monday night.
Timberwolves: Finish a four-game homestand on Monday night against Portland.