Game Recap: Embiid, Okafor Pairing Debuts in Loss to Atlanta

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Snapshot:
PHILADELPHIA, PA - The topic of an eventual Joel Embiid-Jahlil Okafor pairing was prevalent during Brett Brown’s conversations with the media in the two days that separated the 76ers’ first two games of the season.

According to Brown, creating a tandem out of the highly-touted centers was a matter of when, not if.

As excited as the head coach was about the prospect of partnering Embiid and Okafor, he felt that, at this young stage of the season, doing so would be unwise, due to the minute budgets assigned to both big men.  

Nevertheless, sooner than expected, Brown felt Saturday was the time to start tinkering. Nearly two minutes into the second quarter, Embiid came off the bench to join Okafor on the floor, and just like that, an intriguing experiment was underway.

“It presented itself when we were given more minutes for Jahlil,” Brown said following the the Sixers’ 104-72 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. 

Going into the matinee affair, Embiid had been allotted 20 minutes, while Okafor’s playing time was bumped up to 16 minutes.

The two wound up playing alongside each other for roughly two minutes, 15 seconds.

“In my heart of hearts, given the minute restrictions that we have, it’s still not smart to do that,” said Brown.

“Ultimately, we have to. We have to see what it is. We’re going to test it and grow it. But, right now, with the minute restrictions, it’s not smart really for me to do that.”

Without question, in the early stages of their individual basketball careers, Embiid and Okafor have separately displayed promising scoring potential.

But, as it turned out, the offensive end was not the area where the Embiid-Okafor duo had its greatest impact Saturday. In fact, neither manufactured a bucket during the segment of the game they shared together. 

Defensively, however, the pair made its presence felt. On one Atlanta possession in the second quarter, Embiid represented the last line of resistance between a driving Kent Bazemore and the rim. The Kansas product got a piece of Bazemore’s floater, and Okafor, sliding over to provide help, subsequently scooped up the loose ball. 

Moments later, Embiid and Okafor delivered again on defense. Isolated in a one-on-one match-up with Dwight Howard, Okafor was doing his best to withstand a mid-post backdown move from the eight-time All-Star. As Howard twisted to his left to unfurl a left-handed scoop attempt, Embiid alertly broke away from his man, collapsed on Howard, and rejected another shot.

The emphatic swat brought the crowd of 16,312 fans to its feet.  

“It fires me up,” said Embiid of the play. “Dwight is kind of one of my rivals in the East. Just going against all those guys, [Detroit’s Andre Drummond], Dwight, I want to just show that I’m better than them, so it just fires me up.”

“I think that defensively, with their size at the rim, it felt good,” Brown said of the Embiid-Okafor frontline.

For the most part, while next to Okafor, Embiid assumed four-man duties, playing outside the key. Okafor, on the other hand, was positioned primarily on the block. 

The Sixers enjoyed an encouraging start Saturday, ripping off a game-opening 8-0 run that was bookended by three-point field goals from Embiid and Dario Saric. The spurt prompted an Atlanta timeout.

From there, the Hawks, behind a string of jump shots from Kyle Korver, got rolling, quickly assuming the look of the team that Mike Budenholzer has molded into a consistent top-of-the-Eastern-Conference contender the past three seasons. Atlanta’s passing was precise, its offense efficient, and defense difficult to crack. 

The Hawks surged ahead by five points by the end of the first quarter, and held a comfortable 53-39 edge at intermission.

Thanks to the contributions of their bench, the Sixers closed the gap to 10 points, 66-56, in the latter stages of the third period. Atlanta then managed to push the margin into the 20-point realm at the outset of the fourth frame, and never looked back.

The Hawks finished with 31 assists on 42 made baskets, outscored the Sixers by 14 points in the paint, and established a 22-8 advantage in points off turnovers.

“I give credit to their defense,” Brown said, before referencing Atlanta’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) from a season ago. “They were the second-best defensive team in the league last year.”

Embiid and Okafor logged 15 minutes apiece, tallying 14 points (5-9 fg, 1-1 3fg, 3-4 ft) and eight points (2-7 fg, 4-4 ft), respectively.

Sergio Rodriguez provided another steady showing, registering 14 points (7-13 fg, 0-2 3fg), four rebounds, and five assists in his second consecutive start. The point guard has scored in double-figures in back-to-back games, a feat he achieved three times in his first NBA go-round.

Brett Brown Said:
On playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together -
“You see the potency of one having a block, with the other guys playing around them, and then you see the potency of the other having a block, and the other guys playing around them. When they are together on offense, and I’m using up minutes to do that, I don’t think it’s smart to do that too much.”

Sixers Social:
Jerami Grant recorded two blocks Saturday. Here’s a look at one of them:

Up Next:
The Sixers conclude their season-opening three-game homestand Tuesday with a 7:00 PM EST tilt against Orlando. Entering their outing at Cleveland Saturday, the Magic had dropped each of their first two contests, which came against Miami and Detroit. This off-season, Orlando hired former Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel to replace Scott Skyles, who left the team abruptly after one campaign.

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