Anything is Possible: Sixers Win Game Two On Super-Interesting Final Minute

Anything is Possible: Sixers Win Game Two On Super-Interesting Final Minute

First it looked like Game Two of the Bulls series. Then it looked like
Game One of this series. Then it looked like few things I've ever seen
before in a Sixers game—though you could say the eventual outcome was
roughly as weird and wonderful as Thad, 'Dre and Omer's Round One grand
finale. In the end, the Sixers ended up winning this game in a
controversial final minute by an 82-81 margin that wasn't as close as it
seems (except that it sort of was.) I'll explain in a minute.

No surprise, but this Game Two was ugly—and we're talking for-real,
alabi-less UGLY. The Sixers missed five shots in a row on two separate
occasions in the first quarter, the Celtics came a couple Paul Pierce
FTs with two seconds to go away from posting a single-digit third
quarter, and the two teams combined for just 28 points in the second.
Neither team shot above 42% in the game, the two teams combined for 33
turnovers and 35 fouls. It was a little less depressing than some of the
Bulls games, but that's probably just because at least neither team had
the excuse/handicap of injury—minus a stretch in the third when C's
guard Avery Bradley went out with shoulder issues, before returning in
time to hit (at the time at least) a huge fourth-quarter three.

The Sixers manage to briefly cut through the scoreless tedium at the end
of the third quarter, where they went on an 11-0 run that made it look
like they might be able to run the Celtics out of the gym, as they did
the Bulls in their only United Center victory of Round One. The Celtics
were able to answer in the fourth, though, thanks to a couple straight
threes by Mickael Pietrus and two straight KG jumpers to make it a tie
game at 69-69 with 4:33 to go in the game. It looked like the C's would
grind out another home victory, especially during the sequence where
Avery Bradley hit a three to put the C's up one, Jrue Holiday answered
on the other end with a three of his own, and Ray Allen answered right
back with another three, with Holiday being smothered on a subsequent
possession.

But the Sixers showed impressive intestinal fortitude in this one, and
managed to get a stop on defense (love you taking those 16-footers,
Rajon Rondo), allowing Evan Turner—who'd had an absolutely miserable
game up until that point, scoring just six points with nearly as many
turnovers—to give the Sixers the lead on a gorgeous twisting layup down
the lane, a shot that was about 100x tougher than a couple gimmes he had
somehow missed just minutes before. The Sixers managed to get a stop at
the other end, forcing Ray Allen into a tough shot, and brought up the
ball with about 28 seconds to go.

Then, things got weird.

Rajon Rondo took a foul on Jrue Holiday with 14 seconds to go,
presumably because they had a foul to give and Jrue was starting his
drive to the basket. But what appeared unconsidered in the situation was
that with the foul, the shotclock reset to 14 seconds, meaning the
Sixers could basically dribble out the clock, forcing the Celtics to
foul again. Whether this was a lapse in judgment on the part of Rondo or
Celtics coach Doc Rivers, or strategy on Doc's part because he didn't
believe the Celtics could score with four seconds to go (the Sixers also
having a foul to give), was unclear. But the result was that the C's
had to foul when Philly inbounded again, and Evan Turner went to the
line with the chance to put the game in the Sixers' control.

Now, my love for Turner here is well-documented, but when it comes to
free-throw shooting...well, the idea of him going to the line needing to
make two is only slightly less terrifying to me than the idea of Andre
Iguodala (who crashed back down to Poor Free-Throw Shooting Earth
tonight, by the way, going an unconscionable 2-7 from the line) doing
so. He shot just 68% for the regular season, and his prior shooting in
Game Two wasn't exactly helping my confidence. But just as he did late
in the Sixers' huge Game Four victory against Miami last year, he sank
both, putting the team up three and, with 12 seconds remaining, just one
stop away from icing the game.

Then, things got really weird.

No team in the NBA is more terrifying to face when you're up three with
seconds to go than the Boston Celtics. They have two of the game's best
late-game clutch shooters—both with great three-point range—in Ray Allen
and Paul Pierce, other guys who can certainly hit a clutch three in
Avery Bradley and Mickael Pietrus, and even a couple odd Hit a Big
Three-Pointer When You Least Suspect It shooters in Rondo and Kevin
Garnett. So I was prepared for just about anything as the C's
in-bounded—except for what actually happened. A whistle blew as Paul
Pierce got open for a three. The whistle was clearly before the shot, so
I figured the Sixers were using their foul to give, and it'd be side
out, Boston again. But everyone stayed frozen for a couple added
seconds, and some of the Sixers started walking to the other end. It
dawned on me, the fans and the announcers at the same time—

Offensive foul.

Yes, offensive foul—a moving screen on Kevin Garnett. I didn't even
notice it during the play, largely because Garnett is legendary for his
subtle hook screens, which the Sixers had been begging to get called the
entire game, and finally got it at the most crucial time in the game.
Garnett looked more stunned than angry at the whistle—probably because
he knew that he was guilty, but couldn't believe he had actually gotten
called on it. Lou Williams hit a couple free throws at the other end,
and though the C's insisted on making things interesting until the
buzzer—Allen hit a three with two seconds left to cut it to two, and a
couple Jodie Meeks free throws later, and KG actually hit a long
buzzer-beating three to cut the lead to one at game's end—the Sixers'
win was secure.

Now, there's gonna be a lot of crying about the KG moving screen call,
and indeed, the refereeing was a little hinky all game, with calls and
no-calls on both sides leading to some serious head-scratching. But make
no mistake about it—that was a moving screen on Garnett, and his
elbow hook on Andre Iguodala was the very reason why Paul Pierce had
gotten so open at the top of the arc for that three. Whether or not it
usually gets called doesn't really matter—it's the right call, and when
you look at it on replay, it's actually a pretty obvious call, so
there's no complaints to be had. (That Evan Turner short jumper with
about three minutes where he pretty clearly traveled beforehand...that's
another story. But this one's clean.)

Anyway, it was a great collective showing from the Sixers in the final
minutes tonight. Nearly all of Turner's sins—and this was arguably his
worst game of the playoffs for the first 47 minutes—were absolved by his
final four points, probably his most important ever in his professional
career. Jrue Holiday ended as the team's leading scorer, hitting four
big threes, including that big answer three in the final minutes, a
gorgeous pull-up after he was given space behind the arc. Free-throw
shooting aside, Iguodala was also huge tonight, hitting some big jumpers
when the Sixers O went stagnant, and filling the box score in his usual
manner, adding six rebounds and a team-high seven assists, as well as
playing lockdown D on Paul Pierce—who, amazingly, has now shot a
combined 5-20 for the series, a big reason the Sixers have been in both
games in Boston.

But if there's a game ball to be had tonight, it probably goes to rookie
Lavoy Allen. In a series where the Sixers' frontcourt has been getting
positively dominated—Elton had a nice stretch in the third where he hit
some shots, but he, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes still combined for a
miserable 19 points—Lavoy has been incredibly big, scoring ten points
and grabbing eight rebounds off the bench, but more importantly, being
the only Sixer seemingly up for scrapping with Garnett, as well as other
C's bigs Brandon Bass and Greg Stiemsma, fighting on the glass at both
ends and not letting KG get in his head. It's a toughness the Sixers
desperately need in this series, and while I didn't really expect Mr.
500 to be the guy to provide it...hey, we'll take it where we can get
it.

You can't really say enough about the guys for getting this one. It was
another weird one, sure, but this is now the fourth close game that the
Sixers have won in the post-season, and probably their toughest yet. At
some point, you have to give these Liberty Ballers credit for doing what
we get on them all regular season for failing to do—close out big games
against good (or hell, even not-good) teams. A moral victory alone
would have meant we were at least alive in this series, an actual
victory means we might really have a chance to make things interesting
later this week in Philadelphia. It's got me feeling good enough that
I'm going to abstain from saying anything mean about Lou Williams, even.

Game three coming up in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. The Sixers are
still definitely the underdog, but this is now officially a winnable
series. No one could have imagined we'd even get this far two weeks ago,
and I still have a lot of mixed feelings about how we got to this
point, but damn if we shouldn't enjoy the hell out of this now that
we're here.

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. – You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 34th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26 and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see paying players $200 million, $300 million, $400 million when the time comes?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35 and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017 “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him and the looming shadow of the ‘man’ in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nick Swisher has arrived as a New York Yankees guest spring training instructor and Alex Rodriguez is on deck.

Swisher worked with outfielders Monday during his first day, which came three days after announcing his retirement as a player.

"I never have to worry about an 0 for 4 again," Swisher said with a smile. "It's great to be back."

A-Rod is set to make his initial appearance Tuesday.

"He's going to work with our players," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "Dispense knowledge that he has about how to play the game when he talks to the young kids, some of the expectations about how to deal with it. All the things Alex did well."

Rodriguez and Swisher were also guest instructors with the Yankees instructional league team last fall (see full story).

Giants: Cueto to miss start of spring training to be with ailing father
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto remains in his native Dominican Republic helping his ailing father a week after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

The Giants plan to reach out to him to see how he is doing and whether he thinks he will pitch for his country in the World Baseball Classic.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy is not worried about Cueto's preparation. The right-hander has been throwing and working out regularly at the club's academy. Bochy says the World Baseball Classic is "starting to cause a slight concern."

Cueto signed a $130 million, six-year contract before last season. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and five complete games in 32 starts last year (see full story).

Red Sox: Moreland not worried about replacing Ortiz
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mitch Moreland knows he's likely the only new player in Boston's lineup since David Ortiz retired at the end of last season.

He's just not listening to those who say he needs to replace Big Papi's lofty production.

"I try not to hear it because there's no replacing that guy," said the 31-year-old first baseman, who signed a $5.5-million, 1-year deal with the Red Sox during the offseason.

"I think it's going to be more of a team effort," he said. "Obviously we picked up two big arms as well, and it's a very balanced club."

After playing his first 6+ seasons in the majors with the Texas Rangers, Moreland is with a new organization for the first time in his career. So far, he said, the move has been smooth (see full story).

Mariners: Paxton expected to have a big year
PEORIA, Arizona -- Forget the batter's box, pitching mound or anywhere else between the chalk lines of a baseball field.

According to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, the location of one of the biggest obstacles blocking a player from consistently excelling isn't on the diamond.

"A lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears," Servais said at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Servais believes starting pitcher James Paxton cleared that bar last season, and the Mariners are expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to be a major contributor in 2017 for a team that looks to end Major League Baseball's longest current postseason drought.

"He is one of the guys ready to take the next step and be a real anchor in our rotation," Servais said.

Paxton is preparing to improve on his 6-7 record and 3.79 earned run average of 2016. He enters spring training locked into a spot in the starting rotation. That puts him in a different position than in a year ago, when he was battling for a spot (see full story).