Jahlil Okafor was the target of great criticism after the Sixers got crushed by the Miami Heat Wednesday.
Okafor's defense has been questioned from the very beginning of his Sixers career. After Wednesday night's shellacking, one specific play galvanized Okafor's detractors.
The play occurred with a little over three minutes left in the first quarter. Miami's Goran Dragic drove into the paint and missed a short jumper. Okafor appeared to be standing still while other players crashed the boards, including the Heat's Rodney McGruder. McGruder corralled the offensive rebound and dished it out to Hassan Whiteside for an open jumper.
"I know about the clip that everybody's been talking about," Okafor said after shootaround Friday. "The persona of me not caring defensively is false. I took it upon myself to talk to our defensive coach Lloyd Pierce to ask about that individual clip. He said that I did the defensive concepts and that was to retreat, retreat, retreat.
"And I understand visually it looks bad. I was fatigued. I played the entire first quarter and I was tired. I'm not making excuses. ... I did do what I was supposed to do and that's retreat. We had an amazing roller in Hassan Whiteside so my job was to not let [Dragic or Whiteside] behind me. Of course [McGruder] runs in to get the offensive rebound and I'm [accountable] for that, too. That's my fault, supposedly. That's what everyone's trying to make it out to be. The coaches are happy with the way I've been improving and every day I continue to work."
Okafor on Friday sounded like a guy who was getting tired of answering the same questions. On Wednesday, he was just plain tired.
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Okafor's minutes have fluctuated all season. When the season began, he was still recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus. By the time he was healthy enough to play, he was on a minutes restriction and coming off the bench whenever Joel Embiid played. Then as Nerlens Noel got healthy, Okafor became the odd man out.
Before the All-Star break, Okafor averaged 23 minutes a game and didn't play -- for various reasons -- in 18 of the Sixers' 38 games in the first half. He played a little over nine minutes to start the game Wednesday. The play occurred with 3:15 left in the quarter, toward the end of his run.
Okafor said he didn't want to make excuses, but he feels like he's still getting in game shape.
"That was the first time I played that many minutes to start off the game," Okafor said. "My [playing time] has been pretty inconsistent. I played 10 minutes straight against the Miami Heat. That game in particular in the first quarter was a lot of up and down so I did feel tired in that first quarter."
His final stat line didn't look good: six points (3 of 11) with seven rebounds, a block and a team-high five turnovers. The play in question became the focal point, but the turnovers aren't pretty either. He's had 12 turnovers in the last two contests. Fatigue could certainly be a factor there as well as he's struggled to keep up with the pace of the Warriors and Heat.
Perhaps tonight's matchup against the Knicks is just what the doctor ordered. It was less than a week ago that Okafor walked into Madison Square Garden and had his best performance of the season. The second-year man big man put up 28 points on 11 of 19 from the field (6 of 6 from the line) and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes. He also didn't commit a turnover.
Much like with the trade rumors, Okafor isn't fazed by the negativity. The clip of his defensive lapse made its way around the internet and was highly scrutinized. Okafor knows he has to improve many aspects of his game and the 21-year-old is remaining positive.
"I have nothing to be down about," Okafor said. "I'm in a great situation. I'm playing the game that I love and there's nothing else I'd rather be doing than playing basketball. I'm very positive right now."