There were two game plans for Saturday versus Clemson: one if Jahlil Okafor played and one if he couldn’t take the floor. The Blue Devils went with the latter, and no Okafor was no problem as Duke rolled Clemson 78-56.
There is nothing structurally wrong with Okafor’s left ankle, Mike Krzyzewski said, but there is still swelling that needs to clear. Okafor landed awkwardly on an opponent’s foot in the first half of the win against North Carolina Wednesday, spraining his ankle as he fell to the floor. He was able to play the second half and overtime with tape and adrenaline holding down the swelling.
“He keeps improving every day,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re hoping he will be ready by Wednesday (at Virginia Tech).”
There were tears in Okafor’s eyes as he realized Friday night that he wouldn’t be ready to play. Krzyzewski told him not to feel guilty; he wasn’t letting down anybody. Dressed in a sport coat, dress pants and a boot, Okafor gave all the starters high-fives and fist bumps doing their introductions, and he even picked up Quinn Cook after he was knocked down in front of the Duke bench making a 3. On the ensuing possession, Cook forced a turnover, too, getting a hug from Krzyzewski.
“I got excited seeing coach jumping and hugging Nolan (Smith), hugging Kyle Singler, that’s stuff that I dreamed about,” Cook said, mentioning two players who graduated the year before he arrived on campus. “While we’re here in the moment, we want to take full advantage of it.”
Without Okafor, Duke turned in “one of the best wins we’ve had here in a long time,” Krzyzewski said. Using two different types of 3/4-court presses – a 2-2-1 and a 1-2-2 after free throws – and traps when the Tigers crossed halfcourt, the Blue Devils forced 14 turnovers and came away with a conference-play-high 10 steals.
With just seven scholarship players available, Duke went with a smaller lineup most of the time. Amile Jefferson started at the five and Matt Jones at the four, along with Justise Winslow, Cook and Tyus Jones. As Duke’s numbers have dwindled – Rasheed Sulaimon’s dismissal at the end of January left the Blue Devils with eight players, and Okafor’s injury cut it to seven – Justise Winslow has become more and more aggressive driving to the basket.
Winslow had 17 points in the first half alone, and he finished with 20 on 8-of-14 shooting. Quinn Cook tied his career high – which was set against Clemson last year – with 27 points. Despite getting just five points from the two forwards, Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee, the Blue Devils finished with 42 points in the paint.
“That was the way they were playing,” Cook said. “They know that we have guys on the perimeter that can shoot the ball, so they weren’t leaving any shooters. There was a lot of open space.”
Shots from deep weren’t falling early for Duke, as the Blue Devils started 1 for 11 from 3-point range. But even with no Okafor and no 3s, Duke built a 15-point halftime lead, and Clemson never cut it to single digits in the final 20 minutes.
Krzyzewski said he wasn’t sure what he was going to get from his team today – this year, emotional, big-game wins have often been followed with a bit of a lull. And historically, the home game after a home win against UNC has featured a de-energized crowd – people aren’t as hungry, Krzyzewski said. So with the theme of “Strong Together,” the Blue Devils used a high-energy press, and any time the crowd noise waned, Krzyzewski or Cook was urging them back to life. The result:
“What I got,” Krzyzewski said, “was a spectacular performance.”
Quinn Cook, Mr. Reliable for Duke this year, and Justise Winslow picked up the offensive load in Okafor’s absence, scoring a combined 47 points on 19-of-32 shooting (59.4 percent)
The 1-for-11 start from 3-point range was not ideal.