The starting lineup that everyone has been clamoring for finally came to fruition Wednesday night.
But the combination of Joel Embiid at power forward and Jahlil Okafor at center failed to produce the dividends that were expected.
Now, it’s just one game, yet the 76ers were soundly defeated 123-114 by the Toronto Raptors on their way to a 19th loss this season.
Embiid never looked comfortable and finished with nine points, five assists, four rebounds and two blocked shots. Embiid also turned an ankle in pregame warmups, sustained a bloody nose during the game and went leaping into the stands to chase a loose ball late in the game. Okafor did manage 17 points and four rebounds.
Moving forward — and with the pending return of Nerlens Noel — finding playing time for these three big men will be a monumental challenge.
“I am inclined to try that,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said of pairing Embiid and Okafor together again. “I feel like what I said to everybody, I don’t think we’ve been inconsistent with it once. If teams present it where it’s clearly, responsible is a word that keeps coming to my mind, where we’re not hurting the team. Like this bounce of developing our guys and experimenting and truly seeing what do we have. What do we have? That’s my job. Draped under we want to win games. So that is a slippery slope? That’s a funky line to walk sometimes. I do want to do it. We want to continue to try this.”
Maybe Embiid wasn’t at full strength. Maybe he wasn’t comfortable playing power forward.
Whatever the case, Embiid didn’t flash the array of skills like previous games this season.
“I was just standing and I wasn’t moving,” Embiid said. “I was just standing on the perimeter and I wasn’t active on defense.”
Not exactly what you want to hear from your franchise cornerstone.
Okafor, on the other hand, appeared to revel in the new lineup. That’s certainly positive.
“I was trying to do everything I can to make it work,” Okafor said. “I know we’ve talked to coach a lot about playing me and Jo together. Eventually that day would come and I’m just trying to do my part to make sure it all works out and we help the team in a positive way. I wouldn’t grade it. It is all a learning process for us and our first time playing together, so we both are trying to figure it out. I think Jo did well and I did well and it is new to both of us. We are just talking to each other and communicating. We didn’t really learn anything new; we kind of know each other and know how each other play.”
Figuring out the starting lineup with minute restrictions, injuries and such young players makes Brown’s job even more difficult. This is the fourth season of the Brown era and wins have been scarce. At some point, winning must be important and to accomplish the feat, Embiid, Okafor and Noel must receive minutes. Of course, a trade is always possible, but for now, this is the roster Brown is dealing with every night.
“I really genuinely hope to pull it all off,” Brown said. “I want to try this. We need to try it. Here we are.”