Five Takeaways From The Sixers’ 129-103 Loss To Mavs

Okafor's career-high 31 not enough to overcome porous defensive effort from Sixers.

Jahlil Okafor scored a career-high 31 points in the Sixers' 129-103 loss to the Mavericks | Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jahlil Okafor scored a career-high 31 points in the Sixers’ 129-103 loss to the Mavericks | Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers fell to the Dallas Mavericks 129-103 last night at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

For the Sixers it was their fourth consecutive loss and the eighth loss in their last nine games. While the Sixers have played a relatively tough schedule over this stretch, including games against the Pistons, Warriors, Hawks, Clippers, and Mavericks, it’s a little bit of a disheartening stretch for a team that had been playing much better basketball of late.

Jahlil Okafor led the team with a career-high 31 points on 12-19 shooting from the field, including 7-10 from the free throw line. He was joined by Isaiah Canaan (15 points) and Robert Covington (14) in double figures in scoring.

Here are some takeaways from last night’s defeat.

Jahlil Okafor is an offensive prodigy

There’s so much talk about Jahlil Okafor’s future: Will he grow into a capable defender? Can he fit with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid? Is he going to be on the team long-term?

And, recently, was Boston pursuing him at the trade deadline?

Lost in all of that is just how much of an offensive prodigy the 20-year-old center really is. Just look at the moves he got points out of last night: floater in the lane, turnaround jump shot, back-to-back face-up drives to his left, dunk off a pick and roll, face-up drive to his right, spinning hook out of the post, and a tip off an offensive rebound.

And that was just during his 18-point first quarter.

If people are concerned about his defense or his rebounding, it’s because they recognize what a truly transcendent offensive talent he is.

Okafor’s ability to navigate double teams still a work in progress

With Okafor absolutely torching Zaza Pachulia in the first quarter, Dallas quickly changed course and started throwing a double team Okafor’s way whenever the big man touched the ball.

Okafor made a nice read on one of the first double teams he saw in the game, splitting the defense for an easy drive to the hoop, but four of his five turnovers came as a direct result of the double team Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle was sending Okafor’s way.

Okafor’s a fairly polarizing prospect, with fairly pronounced strengths and weaknesses at this stage of his career. Of his weaknesses, his struggles to navigate NBA double teams was the one I wasn’t expecting, but it’s also the one I think is most likely to be improved with little more than time, experience, and improved talent (and experience) around him.

Turning those double teams he’s receiving into positive scoring opportunities for his teammates is the next (very important) step in his offensive development.

The Sixers’ perimeter defense has been struggling

This really isn’t a new observation, as defending the perimeter has been a struggle for Brett Brown and his squad for most of the season. The Sixers have given up 7.5 made three-pointers per game, the fifth most in the NBA this year, with opponents shooting 35.2 percent, which is right around league average.

The problem has been especially pronounced over the last two games, however, as the Pelicans (7-17 from three) and Mavericks (13-34) have both had a plethora of wide-open looks at the basket from beyond the arc.

That 39.2 percent the Sixers have allowed from three-point range over the last two games is significantly greater than the 35.9 percent the Pelicans and the Mavericks average on the season. While there is undoubtedly some noise in that statistic, the Mavericks attempted 21 shots from 10 feet or more where the closest Sixers’ defender wasn’t within 6 feet of the shooter.

Part of this problem is that the Sixers’ perimeter defenders struggle to defend the pick and roll, with the exception of Robert Covington, who I thought did a really good job of fighting over screens last night. This plays directly into Jahlil Okafor‘s defensive struggles, as Okafor’s lackluster pick and roll defense and overall struggles with his defensive rotations only feed into an already existing problem. Finally, the young Sixers have repeatedly been abused by teams who space the floor and move the ball well, something the Mavericks are experts at.

Nerlens Noel spending most of the night in foul trouble certainly didn’t help. Noel played only five defensive possessions without Okafor on the court, meaning the Sixers were playing with two big men almost the entire time Noel was on the floor. It all created a tough combination to overcome.

Robert Covington continues his strong play

Third year forward Robert Covington has had a bit of an up-and-down season.

Prior to a 29 point explosion against Sacramento in the Sixers’ final game before the All-Star break, Covington had shot just 2-20 from three-point range over his previous three games.

Since then, including the game against Sacramento, Covington has gone 14-25 from deep, including 4-7 against the Mavericks. He’s averaging 19.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.7 steals per game over his last three games, shooting 56 percent from three-point range and 52.9 percent from the field in that span.

Another good sign: Covington didn’t turn the ball over against the Mavericks last night, which was only the ninth time all year he finished a game without committing a turnover. Turnovers have been a big problem for Covington so far this year, as he’s turned the ball over on 17.8 percent of his possessions so far this season, the 21st-highest rate among players with at least 1,000 minutes played this season.

Covington has played much more under control the past two games, which is a good sign for him. His defense at the small-forward position has improved by leaps and bounds this season, and if he can finish the season out strong he could overcome much of the concerns his early-season struggles produced.

Ish Smith struggled

Ish Smith had one of his tougher games since being traded to the Sixers, finishing with just three points on 1-7 shooting, with as many turnovers (3) as assists (3).

Perhaps more egregious than Smith’s offensive struggles was his defense, as he struggled to defend Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Raymond Felton, or whatever Dallas Mavericks’ guard he was asked to defend. Smith got lost more than a few times off the ball, was burned by misdirection dribbles from Williams, and was really eaten up by a number of ball screens, which put the entire defense into rotations that Dallas was able to pick apart with ease.

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