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
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'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.

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

For the first 40 yards of Josh Huff’s kick return touchdown on Sunday, he went untouched.

When he got to the Eagles’ 42-yard line, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh was the only guy left in his way.

Huff ran through him.

“Yeah, I can’t let a kicker tackle me,” Huff said. “If he would have tackled me, I really would have been pissed at myself.”

The 170-pound Walsh couldn’t make the tackle and was sent spinning as Huff ran through. Fifty-six yards later, Huff took off from the 2-yard line, flipping into the end zone to give the Eagles their first lead in an eventual 21-10 win over the Vikings (see Instant Replay).

Huff said he knew he was scoring as soon as he saw that he had just the kicker to beat.

With the Eagles’ down 3-0 and with their offense sputtering through the first quarter and change, Huff’s play was a game-changer (see 10 Observations).

“Josh did a great job on the return,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “[Special teams coordinator] Dave Fipp really has those guys ready every single week. You need those things. You need special teams scores.”

After Wendell Smallwood’s kick return touchdown last week, this is the first time in franchise history the Eagles have had kick return touchdowns in back-to-back games. They also have the NFL’s only two kick return touchdowns of the season (see Standout Plays).

“It’s super cool,” Smallwood said. “Now teams have to pick their poison. They can’t go away from one. They can’t say they’re not going to kick to Smallwood, then they kick to Huff and he takes it. I think we’re going to get a lot of teams’ attention.”

Huff also had a role in the Eagles’ offense against the Vikings. He caught four passes for 39 yards, including two that picked up first downs. His 14-yarder in the third helped set up the touchdown that sealed the win for the Eagles.

This season hasn’t been great offensively for Huff. He is clearly the Eagles’ fourth wideout and came into Sunday with just eight catches for 24 yards.

“Obviously, I want to play good on offense, but we have three great guys in front of me,” Huff said. “I’m doing what I can to stay ready and I’m at my best when those guys do need me. At the end of the day, as long as I’m doing my job and as long as I stay ready, today was evident. Whenever they call my number, I’m going to make the most of my opportunities.”

Huff finished off his 98-yard kick return touchdown the same way he finished off his 41-yard receiving touchdown in New England last year: With a flip.

Huff took off from the 2-yard line and did a front flip, landing in the middle in the black end zone on his backside.

“It’s just something that happens,” Huff said. “Everybody says I should have stuck the landing, but I’m not a gymnast.”

Eagles' defense outplays Vikings' top-ranked unit

Eagles' defense outplays Vikings' top-ranked unit

The Eagles’ defense had two challenges on its mind Sunday. First, there was the challenge of outplaying Sam Bradford and the Vikings’ offense. Just as important was the challenge of outplaying the Vikings’ top-ranked defense.

“We wanted to be the better defense out there,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “We wanted to match their intensity. That was the whole thing. That’s all we talked about — let’s be the best defense out there today. We wanted to make sure we were the most dominating defense in the game.

“We wanted to get more sacks, get more turnovers … that was our whole goal.”

In a clash of two of the NFL’s top defensive units, the Eagles beat the previously undefeated Vikings 21-10 Sunday at the Linc (see Instant Replay).

The Vikings defense was very good. It held the Eagles to 14 offensive points and forced four turnovers, but also had no sacks.

The Eagles’ defense was better. It held the Vikings to 10 offensive points, forced four turnovers and recorded six sacks.

If you watched this game and had to guess which defense is No. 1 in the NFL, you’d guess Eagles.

They were that dominating.

They outplayed the best defense in the game.

“We think we’re the best defense, but they’ve been playing great, and they were the best defense coming in,” Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said. “We knew it would come down to whichever defense played the best.

“You could see that the first quarter. We’d make a play, they’d make a play. But you’ve just got to keep on chopping. After the last two games, we wanted to get back to playing Eagles defense, and I feel like we did that.”

McLeod, linebacker Jordan Hicks, Connor Barwin and Graham led a ferocious defensive effort that saw the Eagles batter former teammate Sam Bradford, who absorbed his first loss as a Viking (see 10 Observations).

The Eagles sacked Bradford six times, intercepted him twice and mauled him snap after snap after snap. By the time the Vikings got in the end zone, with half a minute left, it was already a three-possession game.

Neither team had an offensive play longer than 29 yards.

“We think we’re the No. 1 defense in the league,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We think we can be that and should be that if we go out and play the way we’re supposed to.

“We have to do that every week. But we think we can hang with any defenses out there. And we have a lot of respect for that defense across the field, and we knew we would have to show up for us to even have a chance to be in this game. Because that defense is ranked No. 1 coming into this thing.

“But we also feel we’re the best defense in the league, even though we haven’t played like it. But this is the opportunity you want. On the main stage, you’re coming into our home, and this was our opportunity to face the best defense in the league, and I think we showed our worth.”

The Eagles, who looked nothing like a top defense the last two weeks in losses in Detroit and Washington, improved to 4-2 and dropped the Vikings to 5-1.

Six games in, the Eagles’ defense is allowing just 13.5 points per game. That’s No. 2 in the league, behind only … who else … the Vikings at 12.8 per game.

“For us, it’s a battle of the defenses,” Hicks said. “And we always want to be the best defense on the field and put our team in a position to win.”

Bradford has been sacked more only once in his career, back in 2011 with the Rams, when the Redskins got him seven times.

And after opening the season with no interceptions in four games, the Eagles picked him off twice.

Whatever it takes to get motivated. If it works, it works. And this Eagles' defense was clearly motivated by that No. 1 ranking the Vikings brought to town.

“It motivated everybody,” Fletcher Cox said. “We knew in order to win this game we had to be good up front, and the last two weeks we weren’t very good up front. But we got back to basics and went out and played a physical football game.”

Hicks had 11 tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and two pass knockdowns in his finest game of the year. McLeod became the first Eagle since Quintin Mikell in 2007 with a sack, forced fumble and interception in the same game and added seven tackles. And Graham picked up his fourth sack to go with five quarterback hurries and a forced fumble (see Standout Plays).

The Eagles got back to the way they played defense the first three games of the season. They’ve now held their opponents to 14 or fewer points in four of six games and won them all. In their two losses, they’ve allowed 24 and 27.

“Pride … call it what you want, we knew we had to play well today,” Hicks said. “This defense has a certain standard, and it doesn’t matter what anybody else does, it matters what we do, and ultimately if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we’re going to be a top, top, top defense.

“For me, it’s not about them. It’s about us and what we do.”