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.

On 'prove-it' deals, have Rueben Randle or Chris Givens proven anything?

On 'prove-it' deals, have Rueben Randle or Chris Givens proven anything?

This offseason, in an attempt to boost a putrid receiving corps, the Eagles went out and signed two veterans in Rueben Randle and Chris Givens. 

Both were one-year contracts, without much guaranteed money — what are commonly referred to as “prove-it” deals. But a couple weeks away from final cuts, their two roster spots seem to be in jeopardy. 

So, have they actually proven anything yet? 

“Well both of them really have come on,” head coach Doug Pederson said on Wednesday. “I think with Chris' skill set, a speed guy, he's done a nice job catching the ball this week – as all of them have done. Rueben is kind of the veteran, the savvy guy, the smooth, more of the silky runner. And [they are] really two veteran guys that lead that young receiver group.”

It will be hard to lead the receiver group if they’re not on the team — and that certainly seems to be a possibility. The Eagles went out and traded for Dorial Green-Beckham, while undrafted rookie Paul Turner has come on strong, fighting for a roster spot. 

Of course Randle and Givens both said they expect to make the roster. They’re confident and they should be. If not, then what’s the point? 

They each came to Philly on such cheap and short deals because they had something different they needed to prove and the Eagles gave them a shot to do it. 

Randle, 25, finished out his rookie deal with the Giants last year with a good season: 57 catches, 797 yards and eight touchdowns. Yet as a free agent, Randle’s deal with the Eagles was worth just $1.025 million with just $500,000 guaranteed. The problem for Randle in the NFL hasn’t been talent, it’s been his personality and his perceived effort. 

Talking in the spring, Randle said the Giants judged him incorrectly because of his laid-back personality. When asked if Eagles view him differently, Randle said, “I hope so.” 

Then there’s the issue of his on-field effort, which came into question while he was with the Giants and has already come into question since he’s been with the Eagles. 

“I understand that,” Randle said. “I feel like I get read wrong because I do a lot of things naturally and it doesn’t seem like I’m giving much effort. I get a lot of [flak] from that. If I go out there and make a one-handed catch and make it look effortless, I get praised for it. If I do all these other things effortlessly, it’s like I’m not giving much effort. It’s just kind of one of those things, you just have to go out there and make some plays and see how it goes from there. I don’t read into it too much. I put my best foot forward each and every game.”

In the first two preseason games, Randle played 54 snaps, was targeted five times and had three receptions for 13 yards.

Then, there’s Givens, 26, who had his best NFL season as a rookie with Sam Bradford in 2012. The Eagles signed him to a one-year deal worth $840,000, with $180,000 guaranteed, hoping he could rekindle the on-field chemistry he once had with the quarterback. 

What did he want to prove coming to Philly? 

“That I’m a guy that they can depend on and I’m a guy that can do more than one thing,” Givens said. “I’m a guy that really takes working on my craft and becoming the best player that I can be to heart. And that I’ve really put in the work and the time to do all the things that I need to do and be in the right place all the time.”

Givens hasn’t played much in the first two preseason games. In 17 snaps, he’s been targeted just once and doesn’t have a catch. Givens said he’s not worried about his lack of preseason snaps because if the Eagles needed to see him play more, he’d be in. 

The veteran also said he doesn’t feel pressured by the younger receivers who are pushing hard for a roster spot; Givens said he’s never been one to worry about what other guys are doing. He just wants to focus on himself. 

So has he proven what he wanted to so far? 

“I think I have,” Givens said. “I feel like I definitely surprised a lot of people as far as being able to run routes and catch the ball and things like that. It’s just one of these things where I continue to work on it every day and being able to show that I can do all the things that are asked of me in this offense.”

Eagles respond to Josh Norman comments: Sam Bradford is probably ticked off

Eagles respond to Josh Norman comments: Sam Bradford is probably ticked off

New Redskins CB Josh Norman ripped a ton of players from a number of teams in a wild interview earlier in the week. For whatever reason, Eagles QB Sam Bradford took a bunch of that criticism.

"Have you ever once been one of the top 20 quarterbacks in the league? Not that I remember -- and you want more money? I can't wait to play him twice a year,” Norman told ESPN The Magazine.

Sam’s teammates had a chance to come to his defense on Wednesday.

“Everyone knows Sam’s our leader,” Zach Ertz said. “I’m not going to pull a [Terrell Owens] right now and get all upset. At the same time, Sam’s my guy. Everybody loves him. Everybody knows he’s our quarterback right now and I think he’s going to be very successful this season.”

Not everyone on the Eagles had something to say about it.

“I’m not going to get into that. I’m not going to comment on it,” Head Coach Doug Pederson said.

Offensive lineman Lane Johnson points out the obvious, that Norman and the Redskins are going to have to put some action behind their words.

“That’s just what rival teams do. They like to talk their trash. They’re going to have to go out on the field and back it up. There’s going to be a time and place to show what you’re talking about.”

“It’s probably gonna piss [Bradford] off. He takes stuff to heart and he wants to prove everybody wrong,” Johnson said.

And then there was Jason Kelce with perhaps our favorite perspective. 

Temple's defense counting on several to replace production of NFL draft picks

Temple's defense counting on several to replace production of NFL draft picks

With just over a week to go before the season opener vs. Army at Lincoln Financial Field, it’s tough to pin down a way or even a few words to describe the 2016 incarnation of the Temple Owls.

There’s still veteran leadership on the offensive side of the ball with quarterback Phillip Walker and running back Jahad Thomas back for their senior seasons.

But the program has now reached the point where head coach Matt Rhule, entering his fourth year at the helm, and his staff can really start molding the Owls into their vision. Members of highly-rated, athletic recruiting classes of recent years continue to filter their respective ways into important roles.

At this time last year before the season opener against Penn State, the pulse of Temple’s team was clear — experienced, ferocious defense.

But even with star linebacker Tyler Matakevich (Pittsburgh Steelers), defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis (Washington Redskins) and cornerback Tavon Young (Baltimore Ravens) graduating and moving on to the NFL, there’s some very talented and experienced players to fill their roles as the Owls continue to evolve.

So that invites this question: Who’s being counted on to produce and fill the shoes of those who’ve moved on?

Let’s start with the obvious hole in production at linebacker without Matakevich, who finished his Temple career with 493 tackles and punctuated that stellar career with last year’s Bronco Nagurski Award, given to the nation’s best defensive player.

Redshirt senior Stephaun Marshall will slide over to SAM linebacker and take Matakevich’s old WILL linebacker spot. While Matakevich was a generational talent, Rhule is confident Marshall will be able to contribute to the Owls’ defense.

“He’s moved to be a productive guy,” Rhule said Tuesday during Temple’s media day. “I think he’ll play really well.”

Being a productive player is something Marshall, a Montclair, New Jersey native, is used to. In 38 games with the Owls over the past three seasons, Marshall has recorded 113 total tackles, 11 pass deflections, 2½ sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and one interception. He’s also used to moving positions — he started his collegiate career as a safety before moving to the SAM spot in 2014.

And Marshall will be set up nicely to increase his production in 2016. In defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s aggressive scheme, the WILL spot is known to be the most productive on the field. Previous guys at that spot under Snow include former NFL players Pat Tillman (241 tackles) and Adam Archuleta (203 tackles) at Arizona State, and, of course, Matakevich at Temple.

Another player to keep an eye on at the WILL linebacker spot is redshirt freshman Chapelle Russell, who’s currently No. 2 on the depth chart behind Marshall. Still, Russell could see some time as Rhule and his staff have gushed about his potential for a long time now. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, Russell is an athletic specimen.

“Chapelle Russell has infinite talent,” Rhule said Tuesday. “He’s got tremendous upside. It’s just gonna be whether he does it. He’s a redshirt freshman. Some days he’s out there and makes every tackle. Some days his shoulder bothers him a bit or something like that or it’s Coach Rhule told him he couldn’t wear this pair of socks and he’s not quite at the same level. We’re just trying to get him to be the same guy every day.”

As far as the defensive line is concerned, there’s no true answer yet on the inside to replace Ioannidis. Senior Averee Robinson, redshirt junior and North Carolina transfer Greg Webb, redshirt sophomore Freddie Booth-Lloyd and true freshman Karamo Dioubate are all in the mix to play key roles at defensive tackle.

The Owls are set up nicely at defensive end, though, with Praise Martin-Oguike and Haason Reddick back for their senior seasons.

Martin-Oguike had 30 tackles, four sacks and an interception last season. Reddick, a former walk-on from Camden and Haddon Heights High School in South Jersey, made noise last season with 45 tackles and five sacks, all while paying his own way to school without a scholarship.

“I got here and he wasn’t even on the team,” Rhule said of Reddick on Tuesday. “All he’s done is battle for his spot. He played last year at an all-conference level while not being on scholarship.”

Reddick was put on scholarship after last season. During this preseason camp, he was awarded jersey No. 7, an achievement as the Owls annually award single-digit jersey numbers to those voted toughest by teammates.

Sharif Finch, who had an interception against Penn State last year, is also in the mix on the defensive line.

The cornerback situation is a bit more unsettled at this point.

After last season, the Owls seemed set there with star Sean Chandler, who had four picks in 2015 and returned two of them for touchdowns. But the staff decided to move Chandler, a junior, to safety during the offseason to better utilize his athleticism and because it felt it would be the better position for his pro prospects going forward.

What’s left at corner after Chandler’s move is a mish-mash of depth. There’s no shortage of players who have the potential to make an impact, according to Rhule.

Redshirt senior Nate Hairston and redshirt junior Artrel Foster both saw time there last season and played well. Redshirt sophomore Derrick Thomas and redshirt freshman Kareem Ali are also in the mix.

But it sure sounded Tuesday like Rhule is waiting for one or two of them to stand out during the early part of the season.

“Thomas is playing at a high level. Foster was playing at a really high level but he just has some nicks right now, so he’s fighting to get back. Hairston is coming on and Ali is coming on, too,” Rhule said. “I think our corners, we feel like we have a lot of depth.

“The thing about playing corner is you have to get beat. You have to go into a game and really get beat and then respond to it. We have a lot of guys who have the talent to do it, they just haven’t gone into a game and got run by yet. How they respond is a true marker of how they are as a corner.”

The cornerback question may not get an answer for a couple of weeks, at least. Army runs the triple-option offense and rarely throws. On the schedule after Army is Stony Brook, an FCS squad.

That leaves the Sept. 17 game vs. Penn State at Beaver Stadium as the first true test for Temple’s corners. And for the defense as a whole.