The growing pains for big men Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel have been well documented this season. In many instances, the pair has not been able to mesh on the floor together, causing coach Brett Brown to alter his rotations.
Other times, Okafor and Noel look like the second coming of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, though those have been few and far between.
But in the 103-98 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay), Okafor and Noel were simpatico in their new, altered roles. Okafor, the rookie center, played the four-spot on defense while Noel, the rim protector, played the five on defense.
The result was what many had hoped for when the Sixers drafted Okafor last June to go alongside Noel.
“We’re always in a fistfight with [Brooklyn] and we needed [Okafor and Noel] to get some separation,” Brown said.
Okafor pulled down a career-high 17 rebounds — seven of them on the offensive glass — to go with a game-high 22 points. Noel notched 18 points to go with four steals and three blocks as the Sixers picked up just their second win this season without Ish Smith in the lineup.
Smith, resting a sprained ankle suffered in Friday’s loss in Washington (see story), watched as the big men held down the frontcourt and point guard T.J. McConnell scored a career-high 17 points with six assists in 29 minutes in his first start since Dec. 13.
Though McConnell had not played more than 22 minutes since Dec. 11, his “best Ish Smith impression” was the perfect antidote for the Nets as the Sixers whittled it down.
“Wow, he was all over the place,” Brown said. “He disrupted so much. Whether it’s picking up a ball carrier or blowing up a dribble handoff or just getting his hands on something in traffic, he was inspirational.”
In a game in which there were 16 lead changes and 12 ties, inspiration was needed. So where McConnell guided the ship, Noel and Okafor gave those hope-inducing looks into the future. The duo combined for 40 points on 17 for 27 shooting (see highlights).
Better yet, the Sixers dominated the Nets in the paint, scoring 54 points down low to the Nets’ 40. All of those paint points came from Brook Lopez and Thad Young.
“We made a decision to go with our big guys down the stretch,” Brown said, though it often had not been the case this season. “Jahlil did a good job [playing the four] and usually I’m taking Jahlil or Nerlens out [down the stretch]. The rotation we found was easier for me because it became tighter.”
It was tight as a vice in the first quarter when the Nets scored just 12 points and shot 5 for 17. Plus, the Sixers grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to Brooklyn’s 27 defensive boards.
Perhaps the big men are settling into their new defensive roles?
“It helps the team,” Noel said. “With me being around the rim, it keeps my shot-blocking presence especially when they run the pick-and-roll. It changes the game.”
Okafor is still feeling his way around the four-spot on defense, and certainly chasing Young around is no easy task for even the savviest of veterans. But Okafor found himself in position for rebounds, which had been a side of his game that needed work through the early part of the season.
Before Saturday’s game, Okafor said a film session and a chat with Jerami Grant helped him position himself better for rebounds.
“Last game I talked to Jerami a little bit because he’s always playing hard and he’s always in position to get rebounds and I asked him for some advice,” Okafor said. “We watched film today before the game and I have to give a lot of credit to Jerami.”
The Sixers, meanwhile, give a big thumbs up to Okafor and Noel for making the switch on the defensive side. In a season with so many moving parts and tweaks and alterations to lineups and roles, Brown’s decision to move Okafor and Noel on defense might be the biggest one yet.
In the meantime, the Sixers picked up their eighth win of the season and first against teams in the Atlantic Division. At 8-43, the Sixers need two more wins in the last 31 games to avoid posting the worst record in NBA history.
The Sixers continue the homestand on Monday when they host the Blake Griffin-less Los Angeles Clippers. The Sixers lost to the Clippers on Jan.2, 130-99, and are winless against the Clips since the 2010-11 season.
Following the game against the Clippers, the Sixers host the struggling Sacramento Kings, who have lost six of their last seven.