Okafor Dominated by Thunder, 76ers Fall to 0-9

Jahlil Okafor struggled from the field as the 76ers became the first team in NBA history to start consecutive seasons 0-9.

Russell Westbrook had a triple-double against the Sixers, finishing with 21 points, 17 rebounds, and 11 assists in the win | Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook had a triple-double against the Sixers, finishing with 21 points, 17 rebounds, and 11 assists in the win | Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

There are going to be tough games this season.

Sixers fans know this. They definitely know this after the Sixers fell to 0-9 start to the season. It’s the second consecutive season the team has started 0-9, the first time that’s happened in back-to-back seasons in NBA history.

But even for 76ers fans who have embraced the rebuild, who believe that what is truly important is the development of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, there are still struggles ahead.

And a struggle it was for Okafor last night. The rookie finished with 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 turnovers in just under 30 minutes of play. He shot just 3-18 from the field and had his shot blocked 6 times by Oklahoma City’s imposing front court

Regardless of how talented a prospect is, or how developed his skill set, there are going to be nights like this, a truth which may have been somewhat obscured thanks to Okafor’s relatively consistent success on the offensive side of the court to start his NBA career.

Years of success have washed away Kevin Durant’s 2-17 shooting performance against the Houston Rockets during his rookie season, a game when his Seattle Supersonics were 17-59 at the time. In the grand scheme of things, a single game in a player’s rookie season is meaningless.

Except when you’re living through it.

Right now, for Sixers fans, the relative few who have stuck through thick and thin and are still plugged in to this stage of the rebuild, Okafor and Noel’s performance are all that matter. They’re the reason most are tuning in. The optimism, or pessimism, surrounding the team comes and goes based largely on their performances.

Last night was not a night for optimism.

There were likely many factors involved in Okafor’s struggles. The first factor, and likely the biggest, is that the Thunder have the 10th best “at the rim” defense in the league, anchored by a strong group of interior defenders led by Serge Ibaka (opponents shoot 40% at the rim when Ibaka’s in the vicinity) and Steven Adams (47.9%). It’s the pairing of the two that really seemed to bother Okafor, as many of his attempts that were blocked, or even just altered, were from the weakside help defender after Okafor had gotten by his initial defender with moves that were successful against less gifted front courts. Ibaka and Adams play really well off of each other on the defensive side of the court.

Okafor also missed some shots last night that he had been making thu sfar. Like most tough nights, especially for a player who has otherwise had success, off nights are just bound to happen. Okafor certainly had some point-blank looks at the basket that he’s converted numerous times this year, and just struggled to do so last night.

Finally, I do think Okafor had a few calls that he could have gotten the benefit of. Especially when a player is struggling from the field, getting to the free throw line is a vital part of playing through that. 18 field goal attempts without getting to the free throw line is tough to overcome. I thought there were a number of times where he received contact and could have received a call.

Okafor’s task doesn’t get any easier tonight, when the big man has to go up against Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and the San Antonio Spurs. This is the NBA’s version of trial by fire, and how Okafor reacts to his struggles will be interesting to watch.

Odds and Ends

* Russell Westbrook started off the game cold, and finish shooting just 8-22 from the field. Yet he dominated the game, finishing with 21 points, a career-high 17 rebounds, 11 assists, and 3 steals. Even when Westbrook was struggling to start the game, it felt like it was a combination of Westbrook settling and missing easy shots he normally makes. You just felt like there was an explosion coming from last year’s scoring leader. The performance was Westbrook’s second straight game with a triple-double and 6th straight game with double figure assist totals.

* Oklahoma City outscored the Sixers 24-3 in fastbreak points.

* The Thunder big men seemed to really be overplaying Okafor’s spin move, which he uses frequently to gain space.

* Like Sixers fans have become accustomed to, the team remained competitive for the first half, but the opponent blew the game wide open in the third quarter. Unlike previous games, however, this didn’t happen to start the third quarter, but to finish it. A Hollis Thompson three pointer with 2:31 left in the third pulled the Sixers to within 1, but the Thunder then went on a 9-0 run to finish the quarter and followed that up with an 8-4 run to start the 4th.

* Defensive rebounding is starting to become a real problem for the Sixers. Oklahoma City grabbed 16 offensive rebounds on 58 missed field goals, good for a 34% offensive rebounding rate. That’s not a good enough effort from the Sixers. Jahlil Okafor was a big part of that, as he grabbed only 3 defensive rebounds in 30 minutes of play, but the Sixers still gave up 6 offensive rebounds in only 21 missed shots when Okafor was on the bench. In fact, the Thunder grabbed an offensive rebound more frequently when Okafor was on the bench (37.5% of available opportunities) than when he was on the court (32.5%). It was a team-wide issue last night.

* With fellow rookie big man Richaun Holmes out, Christian Wood gave them strong minutes. Wood had 15 points in just over 18 minutes of play, going 5-7 from the field, which included a made three pointer. He also had 8 rebounds, 4 on the offensive end, and 2 blocked shots. He was active and played in control, and you could see the impact his activity level had on the game. The 15 points for Wood was a career-high, and the 8 rebounds tied his career-high, which he set earlier in the week against Chicago.

* Nik Stauskas shot 2-5 from beyond the three point line, which was nice to see. Stauskas had been just 11 for his last 44 from three point range heading into the game.

* Outside of Stauskas (2-5) and Hollis Thompson (2-4), the rest of the team went just 1-8 from three point range, with the make coming from Christian Wood. Isaiah Canaan scored just 2 points on a night where he attempted just one three pointer. The 14 minuets he played against the Thunder was a season low.

* On a related note, the Sixers could really use Robert Covington‘s reliable three point shooting back in their lineup. Covington is scheduled to return Monday against the Dallas Mavericks.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s new Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.