Takeaways From the Sixers’ 96-87 Victory over Orlando

Behind 20 points by Jahlil Okafor, the Sixers beat the Orlando Magic 96-87 to improve to 5-8 since the Ish Smith trade.

Led by 20 points from rookie center Jahlil Okafor, the Sixers picked up their 6th win of the season in Orlando | Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Led by 20 points from rookie center Jahlil Okafor, the Sixers picked up their 6th win of the season in Orlando | Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers defeated the Orlando Magic 96-87 Wednesday night, their fifth victory in thirteen games since the trade to re-acquire point guard Ish Smith.

The Sixers were led by 20 points from center Jahlil Okafor, who, with Nerlens Noel‘s absence in the second half of the game because of a headache and blurred vision, played nearly 38 minutes in the win, just one game after sitting the final 22 minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime periods in the loss to the New York Knicks.

Okafor’s 20 points led the Sixers, but it was a team victory. Five players scored in double figures for the Sixers, including 17 points off the bench from Hollis Thompson, 15 from Isaiah Canaan, 13 points and 11 assists from Ish Smith, and 12 from Jerami Grant.

It was one of the better performances, up and down the entire roster, that head coach Brett Brown has received so far this season.

Here are some takeaways from the victory.

Better play from Ish Smith

For as many big plays as point guard Ish Smith made during his 16-point, 16-assist performance in the Sixers’ double-overtime loss to the New York Knicks on Monday, this was more the style of play the Sixers need from their point guard. Smith made some undeniably huge plays against the Knicks, but the amount he dominated the Sixers’ offense late in the game (39.5 percent usage rate and 54.5 percent assist percentage in the fourth quarter and overtimes) made the Sixers’ offense somewhat predictable down the stretch.

By contrast Smith had just a 23.7 percentage usage rate against the Magic, and the Sixers’ offense flowed better. Of course, it helps when the rest of the team makes shots, which the Sixers did last night. The Sixers connected on 9 of 19 three-point attempts on the night and 48.6 percent overall from the field.

The Sixers’ Depth Prevailed

The Sixers got positive contributions from the entire roster Wedensday night.

Okafor and Smith’s contributions speak for themselves, but the Sixers received a huge boost from their bench, outscoring Orlando’s second squad 51-24.

Hollis Thompson came in and gave them a huge spark, hitting 7 out of his 10 shots, including 3-of-5 from three-point range. Isaiah Canaan gave them 15 points in 8 field goal attempts. Robert Covington, while struggling from the perimeter, added in 11 rebounds and 3 steals. Jerami Grant had a great overall stat line of 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots. T.J. McConnell finished with 4 assists and 0 turnovers in his 17 minutes of play, and the Sixers’ offense never missed a beat.

Everybody who played significant minutes made a positive contribution in the Sixers’ first win over an Eastern Conference opponent.

Nerlens Noel’s Elite Defense at the 5

Nerlens Noel contributed 8 rebounds and 2 blocked shots despite not playing in the second half against Orlando. The Magic shot just 36.1 percent from the field when Noel was in the game, scoring just 34 points on 36 field goal attempts in the 19 minutes that Noel was able to play before leaving the game with a headache.

Much has been made of late about Noel and Okafor playing better together, and that’s absolutely true on the offensive side of the court. The Sixers’ 99.3 offensive rating, or the points the team scores per 100 possessions of play, with both big men on the court since the acquisition of Ish Smith is not only a drastic improvement over the 83.1 points per 100 possessions they had averaged up to that point, but it’s downright competitive across the league, at least for a Sixers’ offense during this rebuild.

But Noel is still playing his best defense, by far, when he’s able to remain in the paint. The Sixers went on an 11-5 run in the first half when Noel was in the game without Okafor sharing the frontcourt, with the Magic making just one field goal during that span. Noel has been a disruptive force on the defensive side of the court when manning the center position, and while the offensive success the team has had of late while the two have shared the court might provide renewed optimism, finding a way to maximize Noel’s defensive contribution is still a problem that needs to be solved.

Jahlil Okafor’s Offensive Dominance Continues

Jahlil Okafor continues to dominate offensively, and he finished the night with 20 points — the third straight game he’s reached 20 points in scoring, and 4th in the last 5 — on 9-17 shooting from the field.

Okafor struggled a little bit in the second half, scoring just 6 points on 2-for-7 shooting from the field, something which has become a trend of late. In the 11 games Okafor has played since December 24th, he is averaging 11.5 points on 62.8 percent shooting in the first half of games, compared to just 6.0 points on 51.8 percent shooting in the second half.

Still, Okafor’s excellent offensive play of late has bumped his true shooting percentage up to 51.8 percent on the season, which is relatively efficient for a player of his age and role in the offense. There have been 9 rookies who have had at least a 27 percent usage rate in their rookie season since the start of the 2000-01 season, and Okafor’s 51.8 percent true shooting percentage places him just about right in the middle of that pack, just barely below Kevin Durant‘s 51.9 percent and ahead of Carmelo Anthony (50.9), LeBron James (48.8), and DeMarcus Cousins (48.4).

Since Smith was added on December 24th, Okafor has a usage rate of 28.4 percent and a true shooting percentage of 58.5 percent. Those numbers would be virtually unprecedented among rookies in the modern NBA.

PlayerSeasonUsage RateTrue Shooting %
Jahlil Okafor*2015-1628.4%58.5%
Ben Gordon2004-0530.4%52.6%
Kyrie Irving2011-1228.7%56.6%
Carmelo Anthony2003-0428.5%50.9%
LeBron James2003-0428.2%48.8%
Kevin Durant2007-0828.1%51.9%
(Since the addition of Ish Smith, Jahlil Okafor's efficiency has been virtually unprecedented for a rookie carrying this much of an offensive burden. Data from basketball-reference.com for all rookies who have played at least 1,000 minutes since the start of the 2000-01 season. Data valid through January 20th, 2016)
(* = Since Smith was acquired on December 24th, 2015)

One other random tidbit about Okafor’s play since Smith arrived: Okafor is shooting 81 percent on shots between 5′ and 9′ with Ish Smith on the court, compared to just 40.2 percent when Smith has been off the court. That’s probably unsustainable (the 81 percent comes on just 21 field goal attempts), but the difference has been incredible

Injury Updates

Center Nerlens Noel did not play in the second half because of a headache and blurred vision. JaKarr Sampson, who started for Brett Brown on the perimeter, left the game in the first quarter with a left hip pointer, and also did not return. Nik Stauskas missed the game because of a left shoulder contusion.

Draft Pick Update

While the Sixers’ recent winning ways have been great to watch, especially for a fan base that had such a tough start to the season, pulling out victories in 5 of their past 13 games has pulled the Sixers to within just 3 wins of the Los Angeles Lakers, and catching them seems like a very real possibility.

The Lakers’ 112-93 loss to the Sacramento Kings last night was especially harmful for the Sixers’ collection of ping pong balls as it not only has the Sixers closer to overtaking the Lakers, but it also hurts the ping pong balls the Sixers will get as part of the pick swap with the Sacramento Kings. Sacramento is still within 2.5 games of the 7th worst record in the NBA, so each potential loss is important.

On the positive side, the Miami Heat continue their freefall, getting crushed by the Washington Wizards to the tune of a of 106-87 score. Miami started the season with a very unbalanced schedule, with 18 of their first 30 games coming at home. Even with their recent road trip — where they lost 6 of their past 8 games, including 5-of-7 on the road — Miami will finish with 22 of their remaining 39 games away from the American Airlines Arena. With their recent play, a road-heavy schedule, and the fact that they’re only 1.5 games away from missing the playoffs, the Sixers have a very real chance of heading into the 2016 draft with three lottery picks.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.