Kelly Oubre, Jr.’s first stint off the bench after nearly a month layoff was understandably shaky. He played a little under five minutes and made his only shot attempt (a dunk) while committing a foul and a turnover. He was a -8.
Whether it was rust, emotion or a little bit of both, Oubre definitely needed to feel things out in his first game since Nov. 10.
“It felt good, man,” Oubre told reporters in D.C. “I was really excited. I had to control my emotions a little bit. I was ready to run through a wall today. I was really excited to get back out there with the guys, and a win definitely made it better.”
And Oubre contributed big time to a Sixers’ win that was a little too close for comfort against a lowly Wizards team.
After shaking off the cobwebs in the first half, Oubre checked back in late in the third. It was his put-back dunk off a Marcus Morris, Sr. miss early in the fourth that put the Sixers back in front and seemed to get Oubre going.
From there Oubre was doing all the things the Sixers missed during his 11-game absence. He got an empathic two-hand dunk in transition. He got downhill and hit a floater through contact for an and-one. He made a quick trigger three from the corner off good ball movement.
He looked like the player that helped the Sixers so much in the early part of the season.
“The key word is rhythm; I was feeling a good rhythm,” Oubre said. “I was able to catch the pace of the guys and kind of not look back after that. This game is about rhythm and this game is about fluid motion — everybody being kind of tied together. I think in the fourth we found our groove a little bit, and it showed.”
He scored 10 of his 12 points in 10 fourth-quarter minutes as Nick Nurse wisely rode him much longer in his second stint.
“I was worried about him a little bit,” Nurse said postgame. “I didn’t think he was in sync and in rhythm. I was worried about him at the half about what kind of rotation I was going to use with him in the second half. But his second half was amazing. I thought he was kind of the spark with just a bunch of stuff, so I’m really happy.
“He gets to the basket, he offensive rebounds, he’s out there really showing and playing with his athleticism. He was a really key contributor off the bench tonight.”
Athleticism and energy aren’t necessarily tangible, but the Sixers’ lack of both things over the years has been palpable. Getting a player like Oubre that has both in spades for the veteran minimum was a masterstroke by the front office. In nine games, Tsunami Papi has averaged 15.8 points in 28.0 minutes a night on strong shooting splits (51.0/37.5/79.3).
The Sixers are now 8-1 with Oubre in the lineup — the only loss coming by one point on opening night. They were 5-6 in the 11 he missed. Certainly there were plenty of other factors with Joel Embiid missing three games and an illness running through the team, but it’s undeniable that Oubre brings an element this team needs.
Oubre, who clearly has a chip on his shoulder for the way his free agency went this offseason, has looked like a player with something to prove. After a hot start, he was struck by a car in Center City on Nov. 11, suffering a fractured rib.
The freak accident made him even more grateful for the opportunity he has with the Sixers.
“It feels amazing, man,” Oubre said. “It’s a blessing. I’ve been on the couch, in rehab facilities and things like that this past month. So it feels amazing, man. And especially coming off something pretty crazy in my life, to play basketball brings everything home. This is what I do and what I love to do, man. I’m going to smile when I’m doing something I love.”
That smile and that energy have been infectious.
And as we saw Wednesday, his athleticism and overall skillset were sorely missed.