SACRAMENTO, Calif. - It was a small-ball lineup role reversal Wednesday night for Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor.
Noel started at center against the Sacramento Kings and Okafor, the normal starting center, came off the bench in the 76ers' 110-105 victory at Sleep Train Arena.
The win improved the visitors to 3-31 on the season. But they are delighted that it's their second win in three games after riding a 12-game losing streak.
Noel had this third consecutive solid performance while starting at center. He finished with a season-high 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting to go with nine rebounds, two assists and four steals.
Meanwhile, Okafor added 10 points and 10 rebounds in what was his first game back after missing the previous two with a sprained right knee.
Point guard Ish Smith had 18 points and nine assists, while power forward Jerami Grant had 16 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks and two steals.
"I think that lineup really worked for us," Noel said of Wednesday's lineup. "I think we were able to get up and down the court, and Jah brought his post-playing just rebounding especially. And I think this team can really go in a lot of different ways. We have a lot of different dynamics, especially with Jah coming off [the bench] and Ish running the point."
Reserve guard Marco Belinelli led the Kings (12-20) with a game-high 28 points. DeMarcus Cousins added 21 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out with 1 minute, 47 seconds left. Rajon Rondo had eight points and 14 assists.
But on this night, the Sixers used the lineup to try to combat Rudy Guy playing at power forward for the Kings. The 6-foot-8, 230-pounder, with guard-like skills, is usually the team's starting small forward. His move to power forward is to create matchup problems against taller and less athletic post players.
Under normal circumstances, the Sixers would start Noel at power forward and Okafor at center. On this occasion, Grant started at power forward.
"For me, when we split up Jahlil and Nerlens, because of how they played, they didn't go backwards in their numbers although they went backwards in their minutes," coach Brett Brown said. "Jah with more minutes would have scored more. But he ended up with a double-double."
Brown said he didn't know if Noel would remain the starter when the Sixers go to this lineup.
"It's sort of like who's playing well," Brown said. "This one's easy, because Jahlil hasn't been playing.
"At times, it's going to be challenging. You feel matchups. I'm just inclined to guard people first and then we will figure out the other side of it second. I just go right to matchups. That will dictate who's on the floor."
If being able to guard people is the first criteria, Noel could remain the small-ball starter for some time. He's by far the better defender of the two.
It also didn't hurt that he had dominating performances at center in the previous two games. Noel made a combined 14 of 16 shots in Saturday's victory over the Suns in Phoenix and Monday's loss in Utah. The 6-11, 223-pounder averaged 16 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 3.5 blocks in those two games.
If Okafor was a tad upset with coming off the bench, he didn't show it.
"I've done it before," he said. "I'm just happy to be playing again."
The 6-11, 265-pounder said he felt fresh after coming back from the injury. His goal was to match his teammates' intensity.
"I was just playing as hard as I can," said Okafor, who was on the floor for just 19 minutes, 51 seconds on Wednesday. "Obviously I didn't play as much as I usually do (32 minutes). I was just playing as hard as I can, trying to help my team win."
He is expected to be back in the starting lineup at center on Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center. The Sixers want him to pair against Lakers center Roy Hibbert. Meanwhile, Noel will slide back to power forward where he'll match up against Julius Randle.
After that, things are up in the air.
Noel is more effective and comfortable as a center than a power forward. Meanwhile, Brown believes that Okafor is a natural power forward. However, he's a liability, right now, on the defensive end at the position.
"The four-five, five-four you know it's still a mystery right now," Brown said of deciding where to play Noel and Okafor. "It really is. And I think we are going to have this conversation throughout the whole year.
"Trying to grow those two guys is a challenge. So for me, it ends up more matchups than this overwhelming responsibility where it hurts the team. You know we want to win games. How I navigate that is a challenge."
Wednesday's game was also a homecoming for Nik Stauskas (three points) and Carl Landry, who didn't play.
The Sixers took the duo and Jason Thompson from the Kings in exchange for 2015 second-round acquisitions Arturas Gudaitis (47th overall) and Luka Mitrovic (60th). The Kings also threw in a 2018 protected first-round pick and the options to swap 2016 and 2017 first-rounder to complete the deal. The Sixers have since traded Thompson to the Golden State Warriors.
The matchup was also a reunion for Kings associate head coach Chad Iske and assistant coach Vance Walberg. The two were assistant coaches for the Sixers before heading to Sacramento. Walberg left in the middle of last season, while Iske was hired in the offseason.
Hollis Thompson went to the locker room after he was unable to check into the game in the third quarter. It was determined that he had corneal abrasion in his right eye. The reserve guard, who had 12 points in the first half, did not reenter the game.