MIAMI — On a day when the Sixers learned Nerlens Noel would require minor surgery, they saw Joel Okafor make his preseason debut.
Okafor, who had right knee surgery in March and experienced soreness on that same knee Sept. 30, played seven minutes Friday night and scored four points as the Sixers went on to win their preseason finale, 113-110, over the Miami Heat at the American Airlines Arena.
Noel will have a minor surgical procedure on his left knee in the coming days (see story). He has been out since Oct. 6 because of a left groin strain, but while undergoing treatment, the Noel reported left knee soreness, which led to a discovery of an inflamed plica. Noel missed his rookie season (2013-2014) after surgery on his left knee.
The Sixers finished their exhibition season with a 2-5 record as they broke a five-game losing streak with the win over the Heat.
But that was not even close to being the Sixers' main story of the day.
So let’s quickly review the injury status of the four center/forwards the Sixers have drafted with top six-picks in the past four years:
• 6-11 Noel, the sixth pick in 2013, awaits surgery.
• 7-0 Joel Embiid, the third pick in 2014, missed his first two seasons because of surgeries on his right foot. He is playing well now, though, producing 18 points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes on Friday. He fouled out late in the fourth quarter but made 8-of-16 shots from the floor.
• 6-11 Okafor, the third pick in 2015, is being eased back in and will be used in a reserve role with a minutes restriction to start the regular season. He played under a six-to-eight-minutes restriction Friday. In addition to his four points, Okafor compiled one rebound, one assist, one block and one turnover.
• 6-10 Ben Simmons, the No. 1 pick in 2016, had foot surgery earlier this month. (There’s more on him below.)
Over the past three years, the Sixers are a dreadful 47-199, including 10-72 last season. But the organization hopes that if the four big men listed above can get and stay reasonably healthy, that can begin to change.
The Sixers trailed by eight points at halftime, 62-54, but used a strong second half to rally and win late on a pair of small forward Jerami Grant free throws.
The Sixers trailed by nine midway through the third quarter before outscoring the Heat, 20-13, the rest of the stanza, trimming the deficit to two. A back-and-forth fourth quarter unfolded until guard Hollis Thompson nailed a jumper to hand the Sixers a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Rookie forward Dario Saric hit a three-pointer with one minute remaining to provide the Sixers a four-point cushion, 111-107. Saric scored a game-high 19 points and snapped seven rebounds in 29 minutes.
Grant scored 17 points off the bench while Sergio Rodriguez started at point guard and posted 13 points and four assists.
Sixers coach Brett Brown said “the instruction was always to deliver [Okafor] to opening night, with the end game being trying to figure out how we can play [Embiid] and Jahlil maybe down the road."
For the moment, though, Brown said he wanted to split the center spot three ways — with about 20 minutes for Embiid, six to eight for Okafor and the rest for Richaun Holmes.
Walking it back
Scratch that January timetable for Simmons, at least for now. Brown said on Friday night that he “misspoke” earlier in the day when he stated that Simmons is on schedule to return in January from foot surgery.
Brown said he misspoke because he was “just getting excited about when [Simmons] might be able to come back,” (see story).
More injury updates
• Guard Jerryd Bayless (left wrist ligament injury) will pursue a non-surgical treatment. He has been participating in non-contact individualized workouts and will be reevaluated in two weeks.
• Saric left the game with 7:11 remaining in the second quarter after he was kneed in the midsection by Heat wing Justise Winslow, who was driving to the basket on the play.
Saric, of course, returned in the second half and played well.
The Sixers, who have 20 players listed on their roster, could start making cuts late Friday night or on Saturday. Their roster has to be trimmed to no more than 15 players by Monday.
On Wednesday, the Sixers start their regular season with a home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That begins a three-game homestand that also includes tests against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, Oct. 29, and the Orlando Magic on Nov. 1.