Nerlens Noel is back to his shot-blocking self.
The 76ers power forward/center has blocked 16 shots over the last five games. Four of those blocks came Saturday in a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. He also had three blocks in each of the other four games over that stretch.
The 6-foot-11, 223-pounder hasn’t had a dominant stretch like this since his lone season at Kentucky in 2012-13.
His defensive presence in the last five games could go a long way in proving that he’s more effective at center.
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“It’s as simple as those (blocks) were when he was paired up 80 percent at a five-spot, when he’s guarding the rim,” Coach Brett Brown said after practice Tuesday. “Eighty’s probably too small a number. I think the answer will be because he’s at the rim more.”
Noel usually starts the game at power forward while Jahlil Okafor gets the nod at center. However, as Brown points out, Noel slides to center when Okafor is out of the game.
Three of Noel’s four blocks and all three of his steals against the Blazers came with Okafor on the bench. And on Monday, Okafor was on the bench since midway through the third quarter in a double-overtime setback to the New York Knicks.
Noel, who logged 47 minutes, 12 seconds in the matchup, went on to record all three of his blocks in the fourth quarter. Both of his steals — one late in the third quarter and the other in the fourth — came with Okafor out of the game.
“Yesterday was one of the games that I played him extended minutes because of his presence at the rim,” Brown said of Noel, who also finished with 18 points, 13 rebounds and two steals. “Forget the lobs he and Ish Smith were doing. With his presence at the rim, our defense was really good.”
The Sixers won’t abandon their Twin Towers starting lineup, though. Noel is expected to slide back to power forward while Okafor plays center Wednesday night against the Orlando Magic at the Amway Center.
This is a game the Sixers (5-38) have a good chance of winning.
The Magic (20-20) have lost three straight and seven of their last eight. A victory over Orlando would mark the Sixers’ first win of the season against an Eastern Conference opponent. They head into the matchup with an 0-25 mark against conference foes.
“We have to take advantage,” Noel said of Orlando’s struggles. “We have been playing well despite losing games. So I think tomorrow we have to come in and try to expose their disadvantages and their weaknesses and continue to shoot the ball well.
“I think we are in a good place right now.”
Noel pointed to Robert Covington, who has emerged from a shooting slump. He also praised the point guard play of Smith and backup T.J. McConnell. But his defense is also a reason for the team’s improved play.
“I can’t even remember any (shot-blocking) stretches like this last year,” Noel said. “I’m just feeling good right now. I have been having good habits and just staying confident mentally.”