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December 03, 2016

Embiid-Okafor pairing worked quite well for Sixers in first extended look

The Sixers were never really in Friday night's game against the Magic -- they lost, 105-88, to Orlando at the Wells Fargo Center -- but there was a glimmer of hope. It came in the form of 12 minutes and 54 seconds of Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor paired together, something we haven't seen in over a month, since the Sixers second game of the season.

The other 35 minutes and six seconds were pretty bad, especially the 21 minutes without Embiid, who was named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for October/November on Thursday.

But we're going to focus on the time the Sixers two young centers spent on the floor together. And although it's a small sample size, it went surprisingly well.

Here's a quick recap of the two times Embiid (25 points, 10-21 FG, 3-5 3PT, 10 rebounds, 4 assists in 26:56) and Okafor (16 points, 8-10 FG, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks in 27:54) were both in the game:


5 min, 29 sec (11:49—6:20)

Sixers 12, Magic 9 (+3): Embiid (8 points) and Okafor (4) combined for all 12 of the Sixers points during this stretch. The duo also combined for five rebounds and turned the ball over just once (on their last possession of this stretch).


7 min, 25 sec (11:09—3:44)

Sixers 19, Magic 19 (—): Magic went on an 8-0 run to start, but the Sixers responded with a run of their own. Embiid (8) and Okafor (4) combined for 12 of their 19 points and combined for four more rebounds (including three offensive boards). They again turned the ball over just once.

“I thought they did a good job," head coach Brett Brown said after the game. "I did ... I thought that those two guys did a really good job when you look at the statistics of just shooting percentages, those two were really the only ones who delivered. I thought that we missed so many layups. I thought that we missed so many at-the-rim shots tonight. We just couldn’t get it going."

Overall on the night, the Sixers were plus-three with Embiid/Okafor on the floor together (in 12:54). They were even when it was just Embiid (in 14:02). And they were minus-22 when Okafor was the team's only center (15:00). In the other six minutes and four seconds, the Sixers were actually plus-two, but that was only because of a few late buckets in garbage time.

And since the Sixers were even in the nearly 27 minutes Embiid spent on the court, simple math will tell you that they were minus-17 in the 21 minutes without him.

It was just another example of how this team is hardly the same without the seven-foot rookie.

“I think everybody, you just sort of feel it in the gym, that you feel like you have a presence that’s taken away," Brown said of Embiid's impact. "And the math confirms that, apart from the feeling I certainly have as a coach [and] you probably have when you’re doing your jobs. And it’s true. But that’s the way it is. You’ve got your 28 minutes and you figure out how to best use those.”

Given the way the team played with both centers on the court, the best move could be trying to find more opportunities to play them together.

"I thought we had our moments," Embiid said when asked about his time with Okafor. "We made shots. Obviously, we need to play more together [and they can] let us play with each other.”

There were some concerns about how the two would mesh, and whether or not the added size would come at the expense of floor spacing and transition defense, but that didn't seem to be a problem against the Magic.

"I liked our spacing," Brown said. "I liked our high-low stuff we were doing. I think that when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to go play hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor and work that low zone and become, I hope, a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, you know, Joel has the ability to space the three. And so there are spacing things that we’ve talked about and we’ve practiced a little bit."

The spacing worked so well precisely because of Embiid's perimeter game -- he's 18-of-35 (.514) on the season after going 3-of-5 on Friday -- and was one of the things that was lacking last season when the team tried to pair Okafor with Nerlens Noel. 

It was so effective at keeping Embiid's man out near the arc that it opened up the offensive glass for Okafor, who finished with a season-high 13 rebounds, including six* offensive boards (also a season high).

*Prior to Friday's loss, Okafor had just one game all season in which he recorded six more total rebounds.

"Like I said, [Embiid's] a great shooter and people have to respect that," Okafor said after the game. "That means their big man is going to be away from the basket and I think that’s why I was able to get a couple easy offensive rebounds.”

What else did Okafor think was working well against the Magic?

“I think the communication piece went really well — [Embiid] was talking to me; I was talking to him," Okafor said. "The floor spacing -- I know that was something people thought might be an issue, but I think that went well with me staying low and him staying high. He hit a couple open threes and I had a couple dunks, so I think those are the things that went well."

That communication was something Embiid attributed to the pair's off-court relationship.

“It starts with how we act together off the court," he said. "We’ve known each other since high school, so we’ve had that relationship. That translates to the game and makes it easier.”

It wasn't a perfect 12 minutes and 54 seconds, however. There is still plenty they need to work through, but as far as first chances go, this one was definitely better than expected.

According to Brown, that work needs to largely be done on one side of the ball.

"It’s not offense to me [that needs to be adjusted], it’s defense," Brown said. "That’s the thing that is most challenging. We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. Right? You don’t want to do that; that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure you’re capable of guarding the opposition and I think tonight we did that. 

"And I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job.”

Now they just have to figure out how to fit in Nerlens Noel... 

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin