Hey, that was actually fun! I wrote before yesterday's game that if you were watching the Sixers get blown out by the Cavs, you were more dedicated than I am, but the team played hard and well, and the game was close for three and a half quarters.
Most importantly, Jahlil Okafor is starting to show why Sam Hinkie took him with the third overall pick.
I've been a vocal critic of Okafor all year long, as his defense has been one of the largest issues with this Sixers team, and a center who can't play defense doesn't really bring positive value to a NBA team. But Okafor looks to be making strides on that side of the ball, and as he does so, it makes it possible to see how you can build a winning team around him. He seems to have slowly been playing himself into better shape as the season has worn on, allowing him to give effort on the defensive end for entire games, rather than just the first half. And a Jahlil Okafor who plays on both ends of the court is a Jahlil Okafor worth getting excited about.
The Cavs consistently threatened to pull away from the Sixers, but every time they stretched the lead close to double digits, the Sixers managed to claw their way back. The most impressive Sixers' run was an Okafor-fueled stretch to end the first half, where Jah completely took over on both ends, playing smart D and scoring the last 7 points of the half. He had quietly struggled with his finishing up to that point, but he basically played Mozgov off the floor. This stretch contained a great sequence of defensive teamwork between Okafor and Noel, in which Jah ran Kevin Love off a corner three, and Nerlens rejected his dunk attempt at the rim. Really encouraging play to see.
Ain't not love in the heart of the lane. (CSN) https://t.co/HOa6XmcS9l— Philadelphia 76ers (@Sixers) January 11, 2016
This was also the first game I've seen in which the Noel-Okafor frontcourt pairing didn't appear to be a complete death knell. Both players played their styles of games, with Okafor putting up 21 points and 7 boards on 9-15 shooting, and Noel stuffing the stat sheet with 12 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, and 1 steal on only a single turnover. If they can continue to put up that kind of production while sharing time on the floor, perhaps there will be some value in having played them together all year.
Overall, this was a really encouraging game against a team I fully expected to destroy the Sixers. Of course, it their strong play didn't matter, as LeBron decided he was going to destroy the world last night, and went into full supernova mode in the fourth quarter. He checked into the game with 7:32 left to play as the Cavs nursed a 2 point lead. 5 minutes later, Cleveland led by 16, and LeBron had matched his season high of 37. Sometimes you just shake your head and acknowledge greatness.
Some other thoughts:
- The Sixers' starting lineup still doesn't work, even with Jah and Nerlens playing better together. And the reason for that is Jerami Grant. At this point, it's pretty obvious that he's a 4 with some perimeter skills, and yet Brett Brown continues to insist on playing him together with both Noel and Okafor. I love me some Grant, but this needs to stop, Brett.
- Robert Covington lives! He's still struggling to find his shot (1-5 from three), but he had his best game in several weeks, grabbing 8 boards, dishing 4 assists, and genuinely getting more involved in the play. This is exactly how Covington should play when his shot isn't falling - by impacting the game in as many other ways as he can.
- Ish Smith's mid-range game seems automatic right now. He has been canning all sorts of mid-range runners, and it makes him far less predictable as he drives the paint. If only he could start making shots at the rim...
- Richaun Holmes didn't play for the second straight game, while Carl Landry had by far his worst game as a Sixer. These are the instances that make "veteran presences" really frustrating, as it's hard to see what kind of value Landry brings in accruing 5 fouls in 9 minutes and shooting jumpers standing on the 3-point line. It's hard to stomach that poor play coming at the expense of a young player who could actually help this team in 3 years.
- Pretty cool, and very impressive for Okafor as a rookie:
Jahlil Okafor has assumed the NBA lead in post up scoring while shooting 47% going one-on-one from the block.— Synergy Sports Tech (@SynergySST) January 11, 2016
- And this happened:
Whenever LeBron takes a jumper. https://t.co/0v2yX5jgG8— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) January 10, 2016