Sixers must start fast vs. vengeful Thunder

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Sixers must start fast vs. vengeful Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Sixers are not exactly catching the Thunder at an ideal time. The Northwest Division leaders had their 12-game home winning streak snapped two nights ago when Brooklyn beat them at Chesapeake Arena by 17. It was only their second opponent all season that shot 50 percent or better against them.

The Sixers know OKC will be looking to make amends.

They are going to want to come out here and bury us from the beginning, Jason Richardson said. We have to be ready for their first wave of attack. Those guys are going to be aggressive, because they are very tough here to beat. The fans here are great. They are loud. They are passionate about basketball, so it is going to be one of those games where we have to be mentally prepared and physically as well, because they are going to come out and hit us with the first punch.

The Thunder won just 23 games in their first season in Oklahoma City, 2008-09. But in the four seasons that followed, they've lost a combined 35 games on their home floor.

Oh, they are going to be ready," said Royal Ivey, who spent the last two seasons with the Thunder. "They dont lose two in a row at home, that doesnt happen. They are going to be ready because they are competitors. They are going to come with their hard hats and we have to be ready that first quarter, those first five minutes -- that is going to be key because this building is going to be on fire."

In Iveys tenure with the Thunder, the team never lost back-to-back home games. In fact, the Thunder have not done that since the 2009-10 season when they dropped consecutive home games twice before Christmas.

A great home court and a commitment to winning has made Oklahoma City a target destination for free agents, and that is in spite of the city being the 45th-largest market in the United States.

It is like a college environment, Ivey said. When new guys come in, like rookies, they are like freshmen. I was considered a senior. It is a college environment -- its like a family from top to bottom. First tier, the way they run their organization from the players to the front office to how they treat everybody. My time here was great.

Said Richardson: When free agents hear around the league that an organization is all about winning, taking care of their guys, a first class organization, guys are attracted to that. Because when you have that kind of atmosphere and commitment from the front office that is when you start talking about championships.

The Thunder have rubbed elbows with that championship feeling, losing in the NBA finals last spring to the Miami Heat in five games. Currently, they have the highest winning percentage in the NBA.

They have two of the top seven scorers in the NBA helping them average the second-most points per game at 106. In an earlier meeting this season, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to score 67 points in an overtime victory for the Thunder -- unsurprisingly, that duo is the top scoring tandem in the league.

Ivey vividly remembers battling Westbrook daily in practice. The practice court, he says, is where Westbrook became an All-Star.

He is definitely a competitor, Ivey said of Westbrook. He is fierce. Everybody downplays his attitude, but that makes him good. He is a competitor. He hates to lose. He hates when he turns over the ball. He is hard on himself and he brings it every day in practice and it shows on the court because in practice he is always competing, always trying to outdo somebody.

Ivey went from guarding Westbrook every day in practice to playing against another UCLA product daily: Jrue Holiday.

Jrue is similar, but he is just quiet, Ivey compared. Russell is more vocal and more animated. Jrue is more reserved, but Jrue has that same competitive nature and he gets after it. They are similar pit bulls -- one is a blue-nose, one is a red-nose pit bull.

Dog lovers know that blue-nosed or red, neither is better -- just different.

Holiday, who Wednesday had his second career triple-double, has a right groin strain but is expected to play.

E-mail Dei Lynam at dlynam@comcastsportsnet.com

Sixers' trio of double-doubles overshadowed in loss to Knicks

Sixers' trio of double-doubles overshadowed in loss to Knicks

NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony stole the show on Saturday with 37 points and a game-winning shot against the Sixers.  

His dramatic bucket was the difference-maker in the Knicks' 110-109 victory (see story), but a deeper look into the box score tells another story of a strong comeback attempt fallen short.

While the Knicks were led by one player (Derrick Rose had 18 points and was the only other Knick to score more than 14), the Sixers fought back with standout efforts from a trio of starters.

The frontcourt of Jahlil Okafor, Robert Covington and Dario Saric combined for 67 points and 35 rebounds. That’s 61.4 percent of the Sixers' total offense and 70 percent of their production on the boards.

In a game remembered for one shot, don’t forget about these performances.

Okafor: 28 points, 10 rebounds (six offensive), one assist, 28:45

Okafor scored a season-high 28 points (three shy of his career-high) starting in place of the injured Joel Embiid. He was aggressive from the start, scoring 11 points in the first quarter alone. He followed that up with another 11 in the fourth. Down the stretch, Okafor scored the Sixers' final two baskets, including the critical go-ahead jumper with nine seconds left.

"There was a real bounce even at the start," Brett Brown said of Okafor, who received treatment after the game and was not available to speak to the media. "He is such a gifted scorer when he has that fluid nature that we saw at the start. … I feel like there was a real mentality for Jahlil to look to score."

The most significant aspect of Okafor’s game, though, was in the rebounding column. He has struggled on the boards -- his defense has been the knock on him since he entered the league. On Friday, he grabbed just two rebounds against the Wizards while Richaun Holmes had 10 off the bench.

That changed on Saturday. Okafor pulled down six rebounds … in his first 11 minutes. That equaled his total from the past two games combined. Okafor gave the Sixers a glimpse into what they hope to see more of from their man in the middle.

"Jah did an amazing job on both sides of the court," Covington said. "He made a bunch of tough plays on the offensive and defensive end. He got a couple big rebounds for us, he does that a lot but we’ve just got to get him to keep doing it more consistently."

Saric: 19 points, 15 rebounds (six offensive), five assists, 39:34

How do you keep up with 20 points and 11 rebounds on Friday? Post a 19-point, 15-rebound double-double the next night (a career-high in boards).

Check out Saric's total numbers from in his last two games: 39 points, 17 for 36 field goal shooting, 26 rebounds, nine assists and 73 minutes. Saric ranks second among all rookies in double-doubles (seven) behind only teammate Embiid.

"That’s massive numbers by any standards," Brown said. "His versatility and his skill package, all under the roof of how competitive he is, makes him a very, very unique rookie."

There has been an increase in Saric’s ball movement of late. His comfort level and growing team chemistry is translating into more assists.

"I just think he’s just so at peace within himself, and so his game takes the same type of shape," Brown said. "It’s not forced."

Saric’s game has been driven by effort from the beginning of his rookie season. He approaches each play with a high level of intensity and his stat lines reflect his mentality.

"We fought until the end," Saric said. "We never gave up."

Covington: 20 points, 10 rebounds, three steals, two blocks, 38:53

Covington's locker was crowded after the game as he was the one who guarded Anthony on the final shot. Yet, in spite of being tasked with Anthony, Covington still posted a 20-and-10 double-double and came up with a major defensive play down the stretch.

With the Sixers trailing 108-107 with just over 30 seconds to play, Covington picked off Lance Thomas' pass to start a fast break. This steal started a Sixers possession that eventually led to Okafor scoring the go-ahead basket. Covington is averaging 3.4 steals in his last five games.

"He helped us coach him to being a two-way player. Now he's for real," Brown said of Covington before the game. "I look at him as somebody that has just grown right before us all and bought in as a wonderful teammate, is a two-way player, is amongst the NBA’s elite wing defenders when you look at his position and can guard multiple people. That has come through work."

Best of NBA: Noel scores 9 points, grab 10 boards in Mavs debut

Best of NBA: Noel scores 9 points, grab 10 boards in Mavs debut

DALLAS -- Harrison Barnes scored 19 points and Dirk Nowitzki had 18 points and nine rebounds as the Dallas Mavericks ended a three-game losing streak by beating the New Orleans Pelicans 96-83 on Saturday night.

The Pelicans fell to 0-2 since trading for DeMarcus Cousins and pairing him with Anthony Davis.

Davis had 39 points and 14 rebounds but scored only 12 in the second half. Cousins finished with 12 points and 15 rebounds.

Seth Curry scored 10 of his 13 in the fourth quarter to help Dallas pull away. His 3-pointer with 4:49 to play gave the Mavericks an 84-72 lead, and the Pelicans never got closer than six after that (see full recap).

Harden leads Rockets past Timberwolves in 142-130 shootout
HOUSTON -- James Harden had 24 points and 10 assists to lead the Houston Rockets to a 142-130 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves as both teams set season scoring highs in a Saturday night shootout.

Houston won for the sixth time in seven games, handing the Timberwolves their first road loss in more than three weeks.

Minnesota committed a season-high 25 turnovers that led to 38 points for the Rockets.

Playing against Houston's guard-heavy rotation, Minnesota went inside all night and outscored the Rockets 68-44 in the paint. Karl-Anthony Towns had 37 points and 22 rebounds, and Andrew Wiggins added 30 points (see full recap).

Bulls benefit as James sits with strep, beat Cavs 117-99
CLEVELAND -- Dwyane Wade scored 20 points and Jimmy Butler recorded a triple-double, leading the Chicago Bulls to a 117-99 victory Saturday night over the Cleveland Cavaliers, who played without LeBron James.

James missed the game with strep throat, and coach Tyronn Lue said he wasn't sure how long the Cavaliers would be without the four-time MVP. Cleveland struggled as it often does without its star - they are 4-19 without him since he returned to Cleveland in 2014, including 0-4 this season.

Chicago has won all three games against Cleveland this season. It took advantage of James' absence to win its fourth straight overall (see full recap).

George ejected, Heat stay hot with 113-95 win over Pacers
MIAMI -- Paul George had another frustrating night in Miami.

Hassan Whiteside scored 22 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, Dion Waiters added 22 points and the red-hot Miami Heat pulled away late to beat the Indiana Pacers 113-95 on Saturday night. Miami outscored Indiana 42-22 in the final 16 minutes, all with George watching from the Pacers' locker room after an ejection.

"It felt like a playoff-type game," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said (see full recap).