ATLANTA - Jahlil Okafor got the start at center for the 76ers here on Saturday night. Richaun Holmes also returned to the team after a stint in the NBA Development League.

But the hot topic surrounding the Sixers had to do with the center, who wasn't on hand for the 110-93 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena.

Joel Embiid was already scheduled to miss the trip. He had a scheduled off day because it was the team's second game in two nights.

However, the standout suffered what the Sixers called a left-knee bruise in the third quarter of Friday's victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. He returned in the fourth quarter before leaving for good with 8 minutes, 50 seconds to go.

Before Saturday's game, the Sixers said only that they were not sure when the 7-foot-2, 270-pounder will return.

He might be back Tuesday against the Los Angeles Clippers at the Wells Fargo Center. He could also be sidelined longer.

"I don't know," coach Brett Brown said of Embiid's chances of playing against the Clippers. "Like I say, I think we will learn more when we get back to Philadelphia."

Embiid had an X-ray on Friday. At first glance, it looked as if he might have hyperextended his knee on the play. Embiid could be out for about a week assuming that's what happened.

"He's good," Nerlens Noel said. "I think it was more about precautionary to leave him out [for the final 8:50 Friday]. He told me even before the game ended that he felt all right  ...  They just got to take care of him."

Noel added that Embiid was moving well after the game Friday.

Okafor moved well early on Saturday before disappearing for a long stretch. As expected, he got the start despite not playing in the previous two games. It was similar to what he did Jan. 14 at the Washington Wizards, the last time Embiid was sidelined on the second day of a back-to-back situation. Back then, Okafor stood out after someone not playing in the previous four games.

On Saturday, the 6-11, 265-pounder finished with 12 points, four rebounds, three blocks, and three rebounds. He did most of his damage in the first quarter. That's when Okafor scored eight points on 3-for-3 shooting. The second-year player also grabbed two of his rebounds and blocked two of his shots in the quarter.

Okafor didn't take a shot attempt in the second quarter and missed his two attempts in the third. He got back on the scoreboard with a jumper with 9:17 left. Okafor made 5 of 8 shots after shooting 10-for-16 against the Wizards. He looked frustrated at times when teammates didn't pass him the ball despite being open.

"It was kind of what the game gave us," he said of his lack of post touches. "It wasn't by design, though."

In addition to not getting the ball, Okafor didn't provide much resistance on defense. None of the Sixers (15-27) did.

The Hawks (26-18) treated this game as if it was a layup line, scoring 42 points in the paint - 40 of which came in the first three quarters. The Sixers also committed 21 turnovers.

They looked nothing like a team that had a three-game winning streak and won eight of 10 games. Like they did in the Wizards loss, the Embiid-less Sixers looked like the squad that finished 10-72 last season.

Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard paced a Hawks squad with six double-figure scorers. Millsap finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds. Howard had 13 points, 15 boards, and a block. It was his 27th double-double of the season.

Ersan Ilyasova led the Sixers with 21 points. Robert Covington (15 points, 10 rebounds), Gerald Henderson (10 points), and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (10 points) were the other double-figure scorers. T.J. McConnell finished with eight points, 11 assists, three steals and four turnovers.

Holmes saw action after spending eight days with the Delaware 87ers. This was his first game action with the Sixers since Dec. 14. He missed his lone shot and was at minus-6 in 5 minutes, 26 seconds of playing time.

Brown said Holmes' tenure with the Sixers will depend on Embiid's status.

"Joel will go through more assessment with our medical staff," Brown said. "I'm not in a position now, because we don't have any information to share as it relates to Joel Embiid. But it certainly will be correlated to that."

Sixers backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez did not see any action. Brown said the decision was made to get swingman Luwawu-Cabarrot more minutes while keeping Nik Stauskas on the floor in Embiid's absence. Stauskas moved from shooting guard to backup point guard when paired with Luwawu-Cabarrot and the second team. The only problem was that the Sixers struggled to score with him leading the team.

Stauskas was notified of Brown's decision while on the elevator Saturday with his coach at the team hotel. Rodriguez said he learned before the game.

Rodriguez, who averaged 8.6 points, 5.7 assists and 25.2 minutes, was obviously disappointed.

"When you are in a situation that you are on a team, you have been playing a lot and the team is doing well . . . [then] not playing a second, that's tough," he said. "But it is what it is. I just have to keep working hard or even harder and try to put myself back on track."

kpompey@phillynews.com

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