Appreciating the Little Things: Five Things to Watch in the Sixers-Bulls Series

Appreciating the Little Things: Five Things to Watch in the Sixers-Bulls Series

Already getting a sense of deja vu, perhaps? That's because this column
is going to be remarkably similar to the ones I wrote before the Sixers'
first-round series against the Heat in 2011 and against the Magic in 2009
(and it would have been remarkably similar to the one I wrote before
the Pistons series in 2008, if I was writing for the Level at the time.)
As Ace Hood might say, it's the same s---, just a different
post-season. 
The Sixers aren't going to win this series, and even hoping
that they will seems oddly unfair. All we can really hope is that the
boys hustle hard and try not to embarrass themselves (and by extension
us) too badly.

Of course, this series is a little different than the last three
first-rounders the Sixers have played, but it's not in a good way. In
those other three series, the Sixers even making the playoffs was
considered exceeding expectations. In '08, they did so in their first
full year without Allen Iverson, in '09, they did so after suffering the
crushing disappointment of big free agent landing Elton Brand's subpar
play (and subsequent re-injury), and in '11, they did so a year after
being one of the worst teams in the East. 
In 2012, however, they're
coming from the other direction—they were always expected to make the
playoffs, and for a while there, they were even expected to win a round
(or possibly even two).

Well, no more—now that the once-discombobulated NBA has sobered,
they see that the Sixers ain't that fine after all, and now people are
giving them even less credit against the Bulls than they were given
against the Heat last year. 
It's hard to really contradict them—up until
their recent four-game win streak, which they only get half-credit for
due to it being the end of the season and three of their opponents
having already thrown in the towel, the Sixers have been miserable for
the last few months, not just the worst team in the playoffs but one of
the worst teams in the league, losing to the Wizards and Raptors by
about 20 each and getting creamed in must-wins against the Celtics and
Magic. And oh yeah, the Bulls are really good, winning 50 games despite
playing nearly half their season without reigning MVP Derrick Rose.

So yeah, we're probably going home in the first round this year,
like we've done in each of our last four playoff appearances. As such,
it doesn't really make sense to break down matchups and go nuts with the
stats and the like. So let's just talk about what to watch in this
series, both for the sake of the Sixers having a fighting chance of
advancing, and for where they go after these playoffs, in what should
(could?) be the most pivotal off-season in recent Sixers memory.

  • How long does Lavoy Allen start at center? That's right:
    Temple's own Lavoy Allen, Mr. 500 himself, is expected to be the Sixers'
    starting pivot. It's a somewhat perplexing move, considering the
    front-line advantage the Bulls have on Philly even with a seven-footer
    like Spencer Hawes or Nik Vucevic in the starting lineup, but Coach Doug
    Collins' bench-fetishizing knows no bounds, and it certainly will be a
    weapon to be able to bring two trees like Hawes and Vuc in against the
    Bulls' second unit. You do have to wonder if Hawes on the bench means
    that Collins does not see him as part of the team's long-term plans, and
    if consequently the team does not plan on retaining his services this
    off-season. It's not exactly a vote of confidence. 
  • Who takes Derrick Rose? Ideally, it should be Jrue
    Holiday, who has shown flashes of being a lockdown perimeter defender
    and would certainly allow the Sixers to maximize their other defensive
    advantages elsewhere. The last time Rose played the Sixers, however, he
    shredded the Damaja, and Collins was forced to switch Andre Iguodala
    onto him before long. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing a little bit of
    Evan Turner on Rose either—Evan can't stay with Jrue on the perimeter,
    but he can prevent him from getting to the basket (or at least funnel
    him to a help big), and force him to take jumpers. And if he's hitting
    those, it's pretty much game over anyway. 
  • How much does Coach Collins rely on Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand and Lou Williams?
    In my mind, none of these guys are getting this team to the next level,
    none of these guys are going to be on this team in 12 months, and if
    we're not going to win this round anyway, none of these guys should be
    the go-to options in crunch time. Much preferable would be letting our
    young guys get that much-coveted (though in all truth, probably
    much-overrated) Playoff Experience to hopefully allow them to grow
    together into a core that can honestly compete in a future playoff
    series. If it really is those three guys, Jodie Meeks and Thaddeus Young
    down the stretch, with our late-game offense consisting of isos for
    'Dre or Sour Patch Lou...it's gonna be a little hard for me to be
    terribly invested in whether this team wins or not. 
  • How much does our team still feel like fighting for Coach Collins?
    Last year, the fight in this team was never in question, and their
    series-clinching loss to the Heat was so emotional in its sheer heart
    and humanity that I called it the "Best Loss Ever." This year, the team
    has shown a definite (and highly discouraging) willingness to throw in
    the towel on their coach, to let a big lead get bigger and watch a game
    fade out beyond the horizon. Will they show the same heart down the
    stretch against the Bulls this post-season, even in semi-inevitable
    defeat? The answer to that question will likely have a great deal of
    bearing on what Doug Collins' future is with this team for next season
    and beyond. 
  • Who the f--- is Evan Turner, really? Is there anything
    this guy could do that would surprise you at this point? I'd believe
    you if you told me that he wins the Sixers two games single-handedly,
    posting a pair of 28-15 games and clamping down Derrick Rose on D, just
    like I'd believe you if you told me that he shoots 27% for the entire
    series, posts twice as many turnovers as assists, and sees his minutes
    slashed to ten a game by series' end. If there's any X Factor to this
    series, it's certainly the Extraterrestrial, and though it's probably
    not enough for the Sixers to win either way, it could have a fair bit of
    bearing on how the organization views Turner going into the off-season,
    and whether they feel like his emergence means they can finally afford
    to cut the cord with Andre Iguodala, or whether his continually
    frustrating play means maybe they're better off shopping him elsewhere.

As disappointing as this season has ended up, and as little a
chance as I feel they have in this series—again, I peg it optimistically
at around 15 to 1—I still plan on enjoying watching this team in the
post-season, and so should you. 
For better or worse, this team very well
might not look like this for much longer, and even if they have too
many flaws to ultimately eclipse the Bulls, I believe they'll make it a
close, eminently watchable series. 
The 12th draft pick might've been
nice, but watching your team play basketball in May is not without its
charms either, and I believe the Sixers will give us the pleasure of one
and very possibly two wins in this series. 
1:00 tip-off from the United
Center. Go Ballers.

Brian Carroll's goal in 92nd minute gives Union draw with Rapids

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Brian Carroll's goal in 92nd minute gives Union draw with Rapids

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- Brian Carroll tied it in 92nd minute and the Union escaped with a 1-1 draw with the Colorado Rapids in a showdown of the Western and Eastern conference leaders.

Carroll ran underneath Fabian Herbers' high-arching header and slotted the finish under goalkeeper Zac MacMath from close range.

The Union (5-3-5) responded only 5 minutes after the Rapids (8-2-4) opened the scoring on Sam Cronin's header in the 87th minute. Cronin made a deep run to connect with Marlon Hairston's cross from the right flank, redirecting it into the far corner of the goal.

Both Dillon Powers and Luis Solignac had shots crash off the crossbar for the Rapids after the 70th minute.

The Union extended their unbeaten streak to seven while the Rapids stayed unbeaten in their nine home games this season.

Chase Utley haunts Mets in Dodgers' rout at Citi Field

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Chase Utley haunts Mets in Dodgers' rout at Citi Field

NEW YORK -- Chase Utley hit a grand slam and a solo homer after Noah Syndergaard threw a 99 mph fastball behind his back, and the Los Angeles Dodgers went deep a season-high five times in routing the New York Mets 9-1 on Saturday night.

In a scene that seemed inevitable since October, Syndergaard was immediately ejected following the third-inning pitch -- almost certainly his shot at retaliation against Utley for the late takeout slide that broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada in last year's playoffs.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari tossed Syndergaard, sending Mets manager Terry Collins into a rage, but no trouble ensued between the teams. A longtime New York nemesis, Utley raised one hand slightly in the direction of the Dodgers' bench to keep teammates calm -- and later answered by doing all sorts of damage with his bat.

Kenta Maeda (4-3) shook off an early line drive that appeared to hit him in the pitching hand and threw five shutout innings for the win. The right-hander yielded two hits, both in the first, and snapped his three-game losing streak.

Adrian Gonzalez homered and had four hits for the Dodgers, who spoiled the Mets' 30th anniversary celebration of their 1986 World Series championship. Corey Seager and Howie Kendrick also connected, all after Syndergaard was gone.

Pinch-hitter Juan Lagares homered in the eighth for New York, long after the outcome was decided.

The stoic Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since Tejada was injured. The Mets -- and their fans -- were incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules this season designed to protect infielders in what some call the Utley Rule.

But the Mets had not tried to retaliate until Saturday night.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard's first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman's back by a considerable margin.

Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected after screaming at Hamari and pointing in his face during an animated argument. The manager was finally escorted back toward the New York dugout by another umpire.

After waiting near the mound with teammates for some time, Syndergaard walked calmly to the Mets' dugout without showing any emotion as the crowd cheered him.

Logan Verrett (3-2) entered for the Mets and, with a vocal contingent in the sellout crowd of 42,227 urging him to hit Utley with a pitch, eventually threw a called third strike past him. But then Utley homered on Verrett's first pitch of the sixth to give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead.

Booed all night, Utley added his sixth career slam off Hansel Robles in the seventh, giving Los Angeles a 6-0 cushion with his 38th career homer against the Mets.

In the series opener Friday night, Utley was greeted with loud jeers and derisive chants. He had four RBIs in a 6-5 loss, including a three-run double that tied the score with two outs in the ninth.

Where are you now?
Tejada was released by the Mets during spring training and signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, who designated him for assignment Saturday.

Trainer's room
Dodgers: RF Trayce Thompson exited in the fifth with lower back soreness. He was replaced by Yasiel Puig, who hit an RBI single off Verrett in the sixth.

Mets: INF Wilmer Flores (hamstring) went 1 for 2 with a sacrifice fly in his fifth rehab game for Double-A Binghamton. Before the game, Collins said it was reasonable to think Flores could come off the disabled list Sunday.

Up next
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (7-1, 1.48 ERA) starts the series finale Sunday night against 43-year-old Bartolo Colon (4-3, 3.44). Kershaw, coming off a two-hit shutout against Cincinnati, is 7-0 with a 1.17 ERA in 10 starts against the Mets. He is 5-0 with a 0.64 ERA in May -- including a three-hit shutout of New York on May 12 at Dodger Stadium. The three-time Cy Young Award winner has struck out 55 and walked two this month.

Soul drop 1st road game of season to Gladiators

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USA Today Images

Soul drop 1st road game of season to Gladiators

The Soul fell on the road to the Cleveland Gladiators, 63-49, at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night.

The loss was just the second of the season and the first away from the Wells Fargo Center for the Soul. Quarterback Dan Raudabaugh completed 25 of 44 passes for 342 yards and seven touchdownsi in a losing effort.

The Gladiators were led by receiver Quentin Sims, who finished with 10 receptions for 114 yards and three touchdowns, and signal caller Arvell Nelson who completed 22 of 36 passes for 307 yards and seven touchdowns.

Next week, the Soul travel to Jacksonville to take on the Sharks on Saturday, June 4. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports and 97.5 The Fanatic.  Kick-off is set for 7 p.m.