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Rival NBA players stick up for Jahlil Okafor

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Rival NBA players stick up for Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor is in such an uncomfortable situation.

The Sixers don't want to buy him out, they won't find much of anything in a trade, they're not playing him enough (or at all) to allow his value to grow, and they seem content to just let this all play out despite their lack of interest in retaining him past this season.

Okafor has been crushed by this city, but he deserves credit for handling the last two years as professionally as any professional athlete could. Not until Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2017 did he publicly gripe and complain about his role. Up until then, he was a good soldier, saying the right things, staying quiet and supporting his teammates. 

Brett Brown appreciates the way Okafor has acted throughout this ordeal. It just doesn't mean he's going to play him.

"Jahlil’s done nothing wrong since he’s been here,” Brown said Wednesday. “He’s handled himself with class and he’s been tremendous as a teammate. You’ve got this sort of slippery slope of Bryan (Colangelo) trying to do the best for the organization in a situation that he inherited and Jahlil wanting to play basketball.” 

Not everyone would have handled this precarious situation the same way. Nerlens Noel didn't. In Phoenix, Eric Bledsoe hasn't. In Pittsburgh, Martavis Bryant hasn't. Granted, all those situations involve different context, but the point is that most players don't stay as quiet as Okafor, especially when they've yet to reach a big payday.

Players around the NBA have taken notice of what the Sixers are doing with Okafor. On Thursday morning, injured Cavaliers guard Isaiah Thomas stuck up for the beleaguered Sixers center.

A few NBA players, including well-traveled point guard Briante Weber, retweeted Thomas' thoughts.

It's interesting to see players who have nothing to do with the Sixers or with Okafor defending him. Thomas has nothing to gain by tweeting that, and the reason he cares is probably because the NBA, like all sports, is a fraternity and he's watching one of his peers be mishandled. 

Okafor is a flawed player, but this is his NBA life, his future. The less he plays, the less chance he has to earn money. The Sixers declined that $6.3 million option for 2018-19, and at this point, it seems unlikely Okafor is able to find nearly that much in unrestricted free agency.

It's hard to figure out what the Sixers are waiting for. Will they do better than a future second-round pick for Okafor? At this point, does it even matter? What good is he doing you on the bench? What good is he doing the organization as an unhappy camper who'll be the subject of questions on a daily basis?

It seems like Colangelo just doesn't want to make a move that could make the Sixers look foolish down the road. No GM ever wants to be the GM who trades a player for 20 cents on the dollar.

But the damage in this situation is done. Barring an injury to Amir Johnson that allows Okafor to return to the Sixers' rotation to put up some numbers, the market won't be improving for the Sixers. That's just not how leverage works. 

Folks outside of Philly are noticing it, too.

Justin Anderson downplays Game 3 scuffle with Dwyane Wade

Justin Anderson downplays Game 3 scuffle with Dwyane Wade

Amir Johnson was getting dressed at the locker next to Justin Anderson when the veteran center looked up with a calm request.

“Tell the truth,” Johnson said with a smile.

That’s because Anderson was attempting to downplay his second-quarter run-in with Heat guard Dwyane Wade during the Sixers’ 128-108 Game 3 win Thursday in Miami (see game recap).

“It’s just a common foul. I’m not tripping about it,” Anderson said.

Anderson may not have wanted to make a big deal over the incident, but the foul was anything but common.

With 10:26 on the clock in the second quarter, Anderson locked up with Wade on the defensive end. Anderson pushed off as he attempted to front Wade in the post when the three-time champion latched onto the Sixers guard’s arm and flung him out of bounds. Anderson fell down into a couple photographers before getting up to confront Wade. Both players were separated and assessed taunting technical fouls for the play.

“I don’t remember,” Anderson said. “It was just a tough play for both of us. Just continue to move on. Next play.”

The skirmish was just one example of the heightened physicality in the series. Game 3 witnessed 56 total personal fouls and six technicals.

Despite playing just two minutes in the series prior to Thursday night, Anderson knew he was walking into a battle.

“They hit us in Game 1. They were physical from the start,” said Anderson, who had six points and four rebounds during nine minutes of action in Game 3. “I try to take every opportunity that I’m given. Watching the game for the first two games from the bench, I kind of recognized that the physicality was real high. I just mentally prepared myself that if I go in I’ve got to hit first or they’re going to hit me.”

So is it safe to say Anderson is the Sixers’ new enforcer?

“Like in hockey? Nah,” he said. “I just play hard. I play hard and make sure I do whatever I can to help our team win. That’s all that really matters.”

Joel Embiid has trouble with mask, not Heat in Sixers' Game 3 win

Joel Embiid has trouble with mask, not Heat in Sixers' Game 3 win

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — "We're not here to make friends. We're here to win the series." 

With those two sentences, Joel Embiid made it known what he is all about in the playoffs.

The big man fought to return from an orbital fracture to help the Sixers win, and that’s exactly what he did in his first game since March 28. Embiid led the team with 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal over 30 minutes in his NBA postseason debut … while wearing a mask with goggles (see story)

“I was excited,” Embiid said following the Sixers’ 128-108 victory Thursday in Game 3 (see observations). “Worked really hard for it. Promised the city that and made it happen. I was kind of sad that I couldn’t play in that first at home because we have a special connection. But I’m glad, came back today and we got a win.” 

Embiid sent a message — he is back, and not backing down. Sitting at the podium with a calm confidence, he talked about everything from his desire to return to in-game chippiness to defending his teammates. 

“I hate sitting out,” Embiid said. “I felt like it was time to come back, especially after watching how physical the game was, Game 2. I love this moment, I love being physical, I love attacking, I love contact.” 

Returning meant wearing a protective mask on his face. Though irksome in some ways, Embiid noted his game is too strong to be held back. 

“It was difficult,” Embiid said of the mask. “But to me it wasn’t really about getting used to it because at the end of the day, no matter how much it bothers me, I’ve still got to be a basketball player. If the shots aren’t falling and it gets foggy or I can’t see, there’s a lot of different stuff I can do, especially defensively because I feel like I’m the best defensive player in the league.”

There was plenty of contact in Game 3, and his mask wasn’t safe from it either. At one point, Embiid’s goggles landed on the court. Justise Winslow stepped on them, downplaying it after the game. 

“He kept throwing it on the ground, so I don’t know if he didn’t like it or what,” Winslow said. “But I was talking to JoJo, we were smack talking, trash talking, going back and forth. No love lost.”

Embiid didn’t quite see the situation as “throwing it on the ground.” He added an extra punch to the end of his recount. 

“Justise stepped on it and tried to break it with his hands,” Embiid said. “But little do they know is that I have about 50 of them. So it’s going to take much more than that to get me out of the series. 

“I’m going to be a nightmare for them, too.” 

When the game was in hand, Embiid was eager to see the Sixers finish with as large a margin of victory as possible. He thought back to Game 2 when Goran Dragic scored a layup with 1.2 seconds to play, and how Jordan Clarkson had thrown a ball at Dario Saric for scoring similarly during the regular season in Cleveland. So on Thursday, Embiid wanted them to run up the scoreboard. 

“I wish I was there in that Game 2 because I was kind of pissed about it,” Embiid said. “It’s basketball. It’s always good to blow a team out. I think we were up 18 or 20. If you could get that lead up to 22, I think it’s good. I love blowing teams out. I like the fact that we did that.” 

There's less than 48 hours until the Heat will look to bounce back in Game 4 and even up the series. Embiid knows the Sixers are in for a battle. 

And he likes that. 

“Game 4, they’re going to try to do what they did at Game 2, come out and be really, really extra aggressive and try to punch us in the mouth,” Embiid said. “We’ve got to be ready for that and I’ll for sure be ready.”