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October 29, 2015

Despite loss, promising debut for Okafor-Noel pairing

Sixers NBA

Brett Brown had no other options. Down to only nine healthy players while missing his best perimeter scorer and top two point guards, the Philadelphia 76ers head coach knew what the game plan in the season opener would have to be out of necessity.

He also was fully aware it wasn’t going to work.

“I knew that our offense was going to be poor,” Brown told reporters at TD Garden after the Sixers’ 112-95 loss to the Boston Celtics. “You know, we just haven’t played together. And so I ended up turning it into, ‘Let’s just post our bigs and sort of go vanilla.’”

As it turned out, pounding the ball inside was the right call. While 92.1 points per 100 possessions isn’t a good number for your average NBA team, this depleted group of Sixers clearly isn’t that. So Brown’s troops predictably turned the ball over 22 times, because they are frighteningly young with no continuity at all to speak of.

Still, despite the lack of ball security, there were a couple of giant positives to take from the Sixers’ point of view.

“I leave encouraged watching Jahlil and Nerlens play,” Brown said. “There were some good things that came out of that game.”

Brown wasn’t just putting a positive spin on the night’s events like he often is forced to. Jahlil Okafor didn’t operate on the low block very much, but he made a ton of plays as a face-up driver against an admittedly unathletic Celtics frontline. From a results standpoint, this was the guy everyone saw at Duke.

Okafor finished with 26 points (10-16 from the field, and a sterling 6-6 from the line) 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and 8 turnovers (which we’ll get to). Most importantly, he’s batting 1.000 for his career with Dawkins highlight videos:

"I was just trying to get comfortable," Okafor told the Daily News’ Bob Cooney. "The pace of the game was completely different than the preseason. It's a lot more intense. (The hot start) definitely got me in a good rhythm and a good flow."

Okafor absolutely destroyed Tyler Zeller early on, knocking down his first five shots with ease. So Jedi Master Brad Stevens went to a couple of bigger bodies (Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson), and the move slowed Okafor down until it didn’t.

“Okafor was really hard for us to guard and then Noel had a great impact on the game on both ends,” Stevens told CSN Philly’s John Finger. “We went small and doubled [Okafor] quite a bit, but I thought we would mix that in later in the game. He played really well and put us in a bind and made us make quick decisions.”

Okafor had trouble dealing with double teams and holding onto the ball in general, a subject I hope to explore for a video post tomorrow. But it’s important to note that he isn’t playing with an NBA-caliber supporting cast around him. That is why, considering the context, a 95-point effort for the Sixers isn’t anything to be ashamed of.

Noel will be the lesser story because we have seen him do it before, but he played a very strong two-way game: 14 points (5-13 shooting), 12 boards, 2 dimes, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. Nerlens was Nerlens, which isn’t a big deal. Nerlens being Nerlens next to Jah, on the other hand, now that’s something to get excited about.

“I think it was a good start,” Noel told Finger. “I think it would have been better if we got the W, but I think we came out here and got a feel for each other. I think we still have a ways to go, but we have a lot of chemistry to build on.”

We have seen good starts before from Sixers rookies that didn’t ultimately pan out. Who can forget Evan Turner (wearing green last night) crossing up Dwyane Wade or Michael Carter-Williams dominating the Miami Heat? And as was pointed out earlier, Boston doesn’t offer much in the form of rim protection.

The two young bigs passed the test with flying colors. For a tougher challenge, Okafor will have to wait until Friday. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors will be in town.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann