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.

Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations this season

Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations this season

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

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Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”