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Sixers-Blazers final score: Dario Saric, Robert Covington stand out in overtime loss

The Sixers lost the first game of their West Coast trip, but it was a fun one.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Standout performances from Dario Saric and Robert Covington pushed the Sixers within inches of a road win, but the Sixers lost to the Blazers 114-108 in a surprisingly fun start to their road trip.

Two of the Process’ most beloved figures featured heavily tonight, and Covington found himself on both sides of the coin in crunch time. He turned a tie ballgame into a deficit with a brain cramp foul, only to tip in a missed jumped from Gerald Henderson to force overtime in Rip City. Covington created his own mess with the mental breakdown, but he showed the poise to carry on after the mistake and came up big when it mattered most.

Saric turned in what is probably his best performance as a pro. The stat line was pretty — career-high 28 points, nine rebounds, and four (!!!) threes — and the dirty work was just as important. When the team fatigued down the stretch and struggled to create separation, he muscled his way through contact and earned a couple trips to the line, slowing the game down when the Sixers desperately needed it.

Neither man was enough to overcome Jusuf Nurkic and his absurd effort for Portland. He abused whatever matchup the Sixers presented him with, and finished with 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists, six blocks (including five in the first six minutes) and two steals. Nurkic took advantage of a Sixers frontline that routinely has trouble rebounding the basketball, and you have to tip your cap when a guy turns in a performance like that.

With the team’s best bigs departed or relegated to injured reserve, the Sixers’ two best forwards have taken it upon themselves to prop up a team in dire need of go-to players. The Sixers continue their road trip on Saturday in a matinee matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Dario Saric’s Rookie of the Year campaign continues

He’s Vegas’ favorite to win the top rookie honor, and Saric is showing no signs of slowing down as the season comes to a close.

Ersan Ilyasova’s departure figured to create a bigger role for Saric, though the team continues to use him in better and sometimes stranger ways with a lot of their top guys on the shelf. Okafor’s return didn’t stop Brett Brown from plugging Saric in at center at one point during the second quarter, and he did an admirable job of slowing down Nurkic in the middle of his one-man show.

Saric’s counting stats continue to rise, and the burden he’s carrying hasn’t impacted his will to compete on the other end. His limitations as an athlete put a cap on his impact, but he’s smart and tough enough to overcome that weakness on the defensive end.

A couple made threes in the first half — accompanied by what looked like a finger-gun holstering on the broadcast — and a bunch of hits off the dribble are a welcome sign amidst a tough stretch from outside for the rookie forward. His shot is the key to unlocking both his individual game and flexibility for the team in the future, so there’s no better time to keep firing away than now, during a pressure-free stretch to end the season.

Robert Covington is becoming a complete player

The defense has been there all season long, even in the absence of offensive production. But Covington has quietly turned it up on the offensive end of the court from about mid-December on, and he’s adding bits and pieces to his game as the 2017 campaign winds down.

Perhaps Covington is finding his way because he’s getting going without just bombing away. He dipped in for a couple mid-range makes off the dribble in the first half, and rather than barreling through defenders waiting in the lane, he managed several crafty finishes around extended arms in the paint tonight.

We’ve already watched Covington transform into one of the best, most versatile defenders in the league this season. I don’t think it’s out of the question to expect him to add more nuance to his game on the offensive side of the ball, and eventually we have to start seriously talking about him as a member of the future core.

This version of Covington is an impact player, and his combination of skills, effort and awareness raises the level of the team’s play by several notches. The 24 points and 14 rebounds and great, but it’s all the little things that add up into one supremely valuable player.

What can the team do with Jahlil Okafor?

Okafor returned to the starting lineup tonight and showed you why he’s such a divisive and infuriating player for Sixers fans to discuss. He got absolutely torched by Nurkic in the first half, and was often a passenger in his return game as he got his legs back under him.

And then he pulls out a stretch like the one he had midway through the second quarter, where he rips off six points in rapid fashion through a combination of spin moves and a couple wet jumpers, and you’re reminded of how good he looks when he has it going. It’s not necessarily enough to overcome what he gives up on the other end, mind you, but you can at least see why a fan or a GM might fall in love with him.

There’s just not a good solution for the Sixers at the moment. Asking him to jump right back into the starting lineup after missing a few games is tough, and maybe he would have fared better if he got his first reps against Portland’s backups.

But it’s not as though the Sixers have a “good” answer right now — Richaun Holmes thrived during a long stretch in the third quarter, but his limitations have been exposed in extended minutes lately. Brown subbed in Okafor for an offensive possession in fourth-quarter clutch time, and then subbed Holmes back in on the next possession despite only 10 seconds passing on the clock.

I don’t envy Brown’s task — you see Okafor knock down jumpers, close out on three-point shooters and convince yourself he can do more. Then he gets bullied in the post, doesn’t react to a shot and gets pushed out of post position by Meyers Leonard, and you just shake your head. So it goes.

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