76ers

First press conference foreshadowed Jahlil Okafor's time with Sixers

First press conference foreshadowed Jahlil Okafor's time with Sixers

It was a seemingly innocuous move. At least that’s what he thought.

Way back on June 28, 2015, Jahlil Okafor was introduced in Philadelphia after being drafted with the No. 3 overall pick. When the press conference was over, Okafor quickly dropped his jersey onto the stage and turned to walk away.

The reaction to the optics was way worse than the scene in reality. But in the end, the moment served as a precursor to Okafor’s time in the city: from the excitement of oozing potential to simply being discarded.

Okafor came to the Sixers with great fanfare. While he was the latest center to be selected in the lottery by the team, he brought certain elements that Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel did not.

First, Okafor had the polish. Noel, and especially Embiid, offered their own offensive gifts entering the league, but the 6-foot-11, 275-pounder was different. He was the old-school big man with the huge hands, swift feet and soft touch in the paint.

“Someone that can draw a double-team, and we don’t see those a lot in our league right now. We don’t see a lot … someone that can draw a double-team is enormously useful. Enormously useful,” former Sixers exec Sam Hinkie said of Okafor in June 2015. “That’s one of the things he can do. Someone that has hands that are as good as his, that can catch every ball thrown his way, that can do all sorts of things in the post, that can be a pick-and-roll player like that. That’s hard to find. That’s really hard to find, which is why you’ll hear people that have coached him and you’ll hear people that have been around him rave about him. We feel very excited to be able to take him.”

Then there was the pedigree. Okafor was an absolute winner. From city and state titles as a star at Whitney Young High School in his native Chicago to the 2015 national championship at Duke, Okafor reached the mountaintop at every level of basketball.

“Winning has always been my main focus,” Okafor said prior to his rookie season. “I have always hated losing. I am a sore loser. I do not take losing well. I have always been about winning because I have been winning my entire life.”

Perhaps the best thing Okafor had going for him was health. With Embiid and Noel missing seasons because of injuries, Okafor was ready to suit up from Day 1. 

And things were good for the big man at the start — well, besides that whole wanting to win thing. Okafor recorded 17.5 points on 50.8 percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks per game during his first professional season en route to being named first-team All-Rookie.

While those numbers are all well and good, this is Philadelphia. Even low-post players that aren't centers learn to play with a certain oomph. The big man is simply held to a higher standard in the home of Center City.

After all, this is where Dolph Schayes pounded the glass. It’s where Wilt Chamberlain took steps toward becoming the GOAT. It’s where Bobby Jones hustled his way into fans’ hearts and Billy Cunningham leaped to one rebound after another.

This is the city where Caldwell Jones terrorized opponents, Moses Malone intimidated foes in the paint and Darryl Dawkins hammered rims into oblivion. 

It’s where an undersized power forward named Charles Barkley made people realize why he was called “The Round Mound of Rebound.” This is the town where Rick Mahorn and Derrick Coleman played with that beloved nastiness. This is the town where Theo Ratliff swatted shots out of the sky and Dikembe Mutombo followed suit with that signature finger wag.

So while Okafor caught the locals’ attention with all of the pretty spin moves and drop steps for buckets, it was always going to be the grit, or lack thereof, that let Philadelphia know who he really was on the floor.

A deeper look revealed everything you needed to see. Okafor capped that rookie season with an average of 7.0 boards a night, but 17 times in 53 games that year he ended with five rebounds or less. 

Then there’s the defense. Forget not being good enough on the defensive end of the floor, Okafor couldn’t even be bothered. I mean, remember this:

He has a defensive rating of 110.0 per 100 possessions for his career. In other words, teams score 110 points for every 100 possessions Okafor is on the court.

“I have to make him holistic and point out defensive flaws,” Brown said in January 2016. “That’s my job, especially when you beat your chest and carry a flag about playing defense in this city. You can’t hide from anything.”

Okafor couldn’t hide anymore. Not from attacking opponents, fans’ criticism or even his own doubt about his skill set.

Throw in the off-court issues from that rookie season, including a Boston street fight and speeding across the Ben Franklin Bridge, and the writing was on the wall for Okafor. 

Then came the long-awaited and sensational play of fellow center Embiid last season and the writing was all over every single wall Okafor was forced to look at inside the Wells Fargo Center and the Sixers’ training complex.

Sure, the Sixers bungled the ending. They sent him home last season when they thought a trade was imminent only to be forced to bring him back into the fold when the deal fell apart. Then the organization had Okafor go through yet another offseason with the squad only to decline to pick up the fourth-year option on his contract.

“Honestly, I didn't want them to pick up my option,” Okafor said last month. “I’ve been going through a lot since I've been here. So the fact that I know that at the end of the season I would at least have an opportunity to play elsewhere, that's great. Now I'm just in a position to where, how can I get on the court? That's not happening here. I want to play.”

It’s all water under the bridge now — more specifically the Brooklyn Bridge — after the Sixers dealt Okafor, Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick to the Nets for Trevor Booker.

Now Okafor gets a second chance to prove he was worth all of the buzz entering the NBA. Hopefully, for him, he doesn’t get quickly discarded yet again like that jersey from his introductory press conference.

Cousins posts historic triple-double in double-overtime win

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USA Today Images

Cousins posts historic triple-double in double-overtime win

NEW ORLEANS — DeMarcus Cousins had 44 points, 24 rebounds and 10 assists, Anthony Davis scored 34 points, and the All-Star pair led a 17-point New Orleans comeback in the final five minutes of regulation before the Pelicans pulled out a 132-128 victory over the Chicago Bulls in double overtime Monday night.

Cousins scored seven points in the second overtime on a 3-pointer, a turnaround jumper and two free throws with 8.2 seconds left. He became the first NBA player since Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972 to have as many as 40 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

E'Twaun Moore scored 15 points, including a 3 in the second overtime to help the Pelicans win for the fifth time in six games.

Jerian Grant had 22 points and 13 assists, and Robin Lopez also scored 22 for the Bulls, who appeared well on their way to their fifth victory in six games when they opened the fourth quarter with a 23-5 run to take their largest lead at 104-86.

Chicago still led by 17 when Bobby Portis hit a pair of free throws with 5:06 left in the fourth quarter. But Cousins and Davis led New Orleans back with a stunning 21-2 run. Jrue Holiday tied it at 110 on a 3 with 46 seconds left, and Davis briefly gave New Orleans the lead with an alley-oop dunk of Holiday's lob (see full recap).

Murray's 38 points lead Nuggets over Trail Blazers
DENVER — Jamal Murray scored a career-high 38 points, including a three-point play in the final minute, and the Denver Nuggets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 104-101 on Monday night.

Nikola Jokic had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and Will Barton hit four free throws in the final 10 seconds to secure the win and spoil Jusuf Nurkic's return to Denver.

Nurkic had 19 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in his first game back at Pepsi Center. Damian Lillard had 25 points and seven assists for Portland.

Nurkic played two-plus seasons with the Nuggets to begin his career, and was playing his first game in Denver since he was dealt to Portland last season. He received a smattering of boos when he was introduced as a starter and a few during the game (see full recap).

Bucks beat Suns hours after firing Kidd
MILWAUKEE — Khris Middleton spent three-plus years under Jason Kidd's tutelage, blossoming into a dangerous scorer with the Milwaukee Bucks.

He showed off what he learned in the Bucks' first game without Kidd.

Middleton scored 35 points, Malcolm Brogdon added a career-high 32 and Milwaukee beat the Phoenix Suns 109-105 on Monday night hours after firing Kidd.

"It's tough for me," Middleton said. "He took my game to another level. He took this team to a whole other level. Today was a tough day."

Assistant Joe Prunty was promoted to replace Kidd for the rest of the year. After a slow start, the Bucks heeded the new coach's call to focus (see full recap).

Rockets come back to top Heat
HOUSTON — Chris Paul wasn't thrilled with how the Houston Rockets played Monday night.

The veteran was perfectly happy with the outcome though.

James Harden scored 28 points and the Rockets overcame a big early deficit to beat the Miami Heat 99-90.

"You have those games during the season where (you) win the game and move on ... out of 82 of them sometimes it's going to be ugly, but you just want to win," Paul said.

Miami led by double digits before halftime, but the game stayed close throughout most of the second half. It was tied with about three minutes left when Harden hit a 3-pointer just before the shot clock expired. That was the start of a 7-2 run that made it 95-90 with 38 seconds left (see full recap).

Sixers' loss falls on Brown? No, his stars went missing

Sixers' loss falls on Brown? No, his stars went missing

BOX SCORE

For a team that almost won its eighth game in nine tries Monday night, the flaws on this Sixers squad are obvious.

They blow big leads.

They turn the ball over too much.

They don’t have a dependable perimeter scorer late in the game.

And they’re reliant on their stars to cover up those problems. While Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s season-high 20 points (see highlights) and Dario Saric’s 22 almost saved the team Monday, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have to show up if the Sixers want to win night in and night out, and they didn’t in an ugly 105-101 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies (see observations).

“Our stars weren’t stars tonight, and our wings were below average," Brett Brown told reporters. "I think [Luwawu-Cabarrot] played well. I think in general the story should be the turnovers. You can’t win any NBA game that matters, and you certainly can’t even consider the playoffs, if this ends up just part of who we are.”

The Sixers, who led the NBA with 18.1 turnovers per game entering Monday’s contest, had 24 turnovers compared to just 12 for the Grizzlies. Ten of those turnovers came in the fourth quarter.

Twenty-four turnovers, and 39 points off those turnovers, are obviously unacceptable statistics. But Brown knows a young team that plays fast like the Sixers will have plenty of games with turnover totals in the high-teens. The Sixers can win those games, but only if their stars play like stars.

Simmons had only eight field goal attempts against the Grizzlies, and didn’t take a free throw for the second straight game. He had just six points along with seven assists and four turnovers.

Embiid scored 15 points, going 5 for 13 from the field and 5 for 9 from the line. While the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week pulled down 14 rebounds, he wasn’t himself.

“This wasn’t one of Jo’s games,” Brown said. “For whatever reason, from the start to the end, this just wasn’t one of his games. It was clear there wasn’t much going on tonight. When you see him miss the type of free throws that he missed, you know something’s going on. He’s had a great season, he’s a Player of the Week, and sometimes those games happen.”

Like Brown, Simmons was frustrated with the loss, and he agreed with his coach’s sentiment that “the stars weren’t stars.”

“Yeah, we weren’t,” Simmons said. “We sucked. We didn’t make big plays down the stretch, didn’t take care of the ball. Defensively, we weren’t too bad, but yeah, he’s right.”

Coaching this Sixers team is not an easy job. It may look easy when Embiid is playing like the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon and Simmons is making freakish play after freakish play, but Brown must feel helpless as he watches his young team gift the opposition free points while its big lead vanishes. When the Sixers win, it’s been pretty, but many of the losses have followed the same ugly pattern.

Brown can stress how important it is to take care of the ball, call timeouts to try to stop the opponent’s momentum and draw up plays to get his stars the ball in crunch time. He did all of those things Monday, and it wasn’t enough, because Embiid and Simmons had off nights on the same night. Many Sixers fans will want Brown to do more and will think this team should be beyond these sort of collapses. While that's a fair perspective, you can also understand Brown's exasperation.

“I thought that we had not much leadership,” Brown said. “I thought our poise was poor. I thought it was an immature loss. I think it’s a game where you look at the mistakes that were made and the opportunities that we blew, those types of words come to mind. It’s not something that we leave Memphis dusting off, thinking that there are 82 games and stuff like this happens — that’s not good enough. This is a game we should have won, we were in a position to win and we didn’t have the maturity to close it out.”