Best Loss Ever: Sixers Lose Game Five and Series to Heat, But Show World Who They Are

Best Loss Ever: Sixers Lose Game Five and Series to Heat, But Show World Who They Are

I have never been less upset about a heartbreaking defeat than this one. I want to cry a little, sure, but it's not out of searing desperation or bitter regret—it's because my heart is absolutely swelling with pride over how this team performed tonight, as proud as I was of the Flyers after Game Seven of the Bruins series last year, as proud as I was of the Phillies after Game Five of the World Series in 2008. As the game wound down and it became clear that the Sixers were gonna come up one miracle short, a tweet from Heat scribe Brian Windhorst started circulated around Twitter of a message that Coach Collins whispered to Elton Brand as EB delivered his sixth and final foul: "I love you to death." That just about says it all about this team right now.

The final score of the game tonight read 97-91. That's the score that the 76ers eventually and officially lost by, but it was entirely possible that they were going to lose the game several times before that, at 77-69, at 81-71, at 86-78. But every single time, the Sixers batlte back, cutting the Heat lead back to four, to two, until eventually, Philly got an open baseline runner for Evan Turner with a little over a minute left to tie the game. It wouldn't drop, and the Sixers didn't get another chance to tie it until they got the ball back with 17 seconds left, and Andre Iguodala made the somewhat perplexing decision to go for a tough two (instead of the more traditional tough three or easy two) and missed, essentially sealing the game for Miami. But if the game had lasted another two minutes, I have no doubt that the Sixers would have battled back once more. They may never have won this game, but they would never have let it slip away completely, and they would have never given up.

The list of heroes tonight for this team is almost too long to list, but let's try anyway. Elton Brand certainly gets top honors, working ridiculously hard for his 22 points, abusing the deficiencies of his defenders (shooting over Bosh, driving on Anthony) and making nearly every right decision. Jrue Holiday was unspectacular (except for that spin move, holy shit), but posted a solid stat line of 10/8/5. Thaddeus Young made up for his last few clunker games with a resplendent fourth quarter, hitting four consecutive jumpers (four--including a ridiculous turnaround shot) after seemingly not making one the entire series prior. Jodie Meeks hit a couple big threes. Spencer Hawes made a couple beautiful passes. And Evan Turner, whose rough shooting night from the field (2-10) might have ultimately been the difference in the game, still made a hugely positive contribution for the team with his first-half rebounding (eight boards, ten for the game) and his seriously impressive D on LeBron when 'Dre had to sit with three fouls in the second quarter.

And oh yes, Mr. Andre Iguodala. As always seems to be the case with 'Dre, tonight he made an excellent case for both his most loyal supporters and his harshest critics. His defense was predictably excellent, as was his rebounding (10 for the game, a team-high along with ET) and his passing (four assists to 0 turnovers). And tonight, for the first time this series, even his shot was working, as he got himself going with some big dunks early, and hit three huge fourth-quarter jumpers to keep the Sixers in the game in the last five minutes, shots he hasn't hit in months. But, when it came the crunchiest of crunch time for the Sixers, down three with 17 seconds to go, the ball went once again to 'Dre, and he failed to come through, missing his tough jumper that would've left the Sixers still down one anyway. You can't hate on him too much, because without him we're never in that situation in the first place, but it's reminder #11,437 why 'Dre's true place in this universe is still not as a go-to, true #1 guy. (It's also about as fitting a way for our season to end as any dramatic ironist could write up.)

The really impressive thing tonight wasn't any individual effort, though, but the way the team locked down on defense. They gave up a lot of threes early, yeah, as Mario Chalmers and James Jones hit a bunch of looks from deep, but I'd always rather the team force those guys to win the game, rather than letting Wade and LeBron run amok. By contrast, those two were held to a very reasonable 42 combined points for the game, and none of it was easy, as the Sixers forced them into taking tough jumpers and floaters, and consitently kept them—until the fourth quarter, anyway, where the Heat's execution just became too crisp for the Sixers to stop—off the free-throw line, where'd they so often killed the Sixers earlier in the series. Those early threes and those late free throws (of which the Heat only missed a couple, whereas the Sixers bricked a whole handful) ended up being a bit too much to overcome, but the Sixers' D gave them a very real chance up until the end, and that's all you can really hope for in a game like this.

Look, the Sixers are a flawed team. They don't have a big man or a #1 scorer, and the only guy on the team to ever play in an All-Star Game hasn't done so since 2006. But those are personnel issues, ones whose blame can (and should) be squarely laid at the feet of the front office. All we ask—all we've ever asked—of those men wearing our team colors on the court and on the sideline is that they try their absolute hardest, play to the best of their ability, do any and everything in their power to help their team win the game. And if anyone doubts that the Sixers did this tonight, against this significantly superior team, this potential dynasty in the making...well, you guys know where to find me, I'd be more than happy to set you straight. Personally, I could not ask for more.

There's still much to be discussed with this team, in terms of where the team needs to go from here, and what moves need to be made in the off-season for them to hopefully get there. But before that, an observation I made over the course of this series. This time last year, there was another lower-seeded Eastern Conference team that went up against a superior, LeBron James-led opponent. Like the Sixers, they lost in five games, just barely managing to steal one away, but in the process, they turned a lot of heads with their energy, their toughness and their defense, battling in every game and showing flashes that perhaps the best days for them laid ahead. That team was the Chicago Bulls, who this year made the jump from the eighth seed to the first seed, and currently await the winner of the Hawks-Magic series, having already advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that the two teams will follow directly similar paths—the Bulls had the advantage of having Derrick Rose (a once-in-a-generation talent) and a whole lot of incoming cap space (with which they signed free agents like Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korever and Ronnie Brewer) to build around, neither of which the Sixers will have at their disposal. But even if the slopes will be different, I do now believe that the Sixers are moving in the same direction as the Bulls were—and at the very least, that they have more in common with Chicago than with the Milwaukee Bucks, who overachieved to the fifth seed last year, played tough in the playoffs but got bounced in the first round, and regressed majorly this year as the franchise made cap-clogging signings of role players under the assumption that the team was ready to make a jump that they just weren't fit for.

But regardless of how hopeful you are for the future—and I do have to allow for the possibility that the boys' performance tonight has me thinking less than clearly about their oncoming prospects—you have to give it up for how they played tonight. One of my big questions at the end of the season this year was "Is this team any different from the fools' gold playoff team
s of '08 and '09"? And while it's still less than conclusive, compare how the playoffs ended this year to how they ended in both of those seasons. Against Orlando and Detroit, Philly were eliminated in blowouts at home, games that were over before halftime, as opposed to tonight's down-to-the-wire squeaker on the road—against a team much more talented than either of those Pistons or Magic squads. I left those post-seasons thinking "What was the point of it all?" I'm leaving this one thinking "Goddamn I'm glad I got to experience this instead of another miserable year of tanking."

I love this team, and outside of the miserable beginning (the 3-13 start) and the discouraging end (the final-game loss against the Pistons at home to drop them to .500), I've thoroughly enjoyed rooting for them all year. Even if they'd won tonight somehow, I don't think I'd feel that much better about them than I do right now. I can't wait for next year to start already. And I definitely can't wait to cheer against the Miami Heat in the next round, and possibly for the rest of my life.

Flyers returning from World Cup enjoyed playoff-like atmosphere

Flyers returning from World Cup enjoyed playoff-like atmosphere

VOORHEES, N.J. – It’s as if the season began right where it left off for the handful of Flyers players that participated in the World Cup of Hockey. 

Five months removed from their first round series with Washington, the group that played in the international tournament says it was nearly identical to the tempo they saw in the NHL playoffs.

“Our division was really tight so right from the get-go you couldn’t afford to lose a game,” said Sean Couturier, who suited up for North America. “It definitely felt like playoffs, and it definitely didn’t feel like September.”

Couturier was joined by his World Cup teammate Shayne Gostisbehere, along with Team Czech Republic’s Jake Voracek and Michael Neuvirth, in their return to Voorhees for their first practice with the Flyers on Monday. Team Canada’s Claude Giroux and the Team Europe duo of Mark Streit and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare will be competing in the finals this week.

While it may have been an early exit for the first wave of Flyers who reported back, the experience of playing in a tournament with that high of intensity has left them more confident than they’ve ever felt at this time of the year, particularly for Gostisbehere. 

The Calder Trophy runner-up underwent offseason hip surgery following his 46-point season. Having missed a season two years ago because of a torn ACL, Gostisbehere is thankful for how much the World Cup prepared him for his second year. He says he feels better now than he ever has in his career after picking up four assists in the tournament.

“You don’t play in those games in September normally so it was pretty cool to do,” Gostisbehere said. “I think the tournament was a good stepping stone for me and to branch off my injury and give yourself the confidence that you’re feeling good for the year.”

Like Couturier and Gostisbehere, Voracek said the World Cup gameplay mirrored that of the NHL postseason. 

“When I look at the season for the Flyers, it was the best thing that could have happened for me,” Voracek said. “The World Cup was high level… I’m six games in before training camp even starts.”

After what he calls a “good offseason” of training, Voracek saw this opportunity as almost a saving grace – a chance to regain form before embarking on his sixth season in Philadelphia. The winger had one goal and one assist in three games that “felt like I was playing in the playoffs.”

Had this tournament occurred in 2015, the mindset coming back may have been different. Dave Hakstol was coaching his first professional season and as evidenced by their record to start the year and the comments made throughout, things took a little longer than expected when it came to picking up the new coach’s system.

That process is behind the Flyers, and it makes missing the first weekend of camp and possibly the first week of preseason games an easier obstacle to overcome.

“It’s always better when you know the system and what Hak wants in you,” Voracek said. “It’s obviously going to get better and better.”

The best-of-three World Cup finals will begin on Tuesday with the third game (if needed) commencing on Saturday. If the teams go the full distance, the remaining three Flyers involved would likely not play their first preseason game until October 6 if not October 8, the final exhibition game. 

Carson Wentz By the Numbers: Not much precedent for this success

Carson Wentz By the Numbers: Not much precedent for this success

The way Carson Wentz is playing, we may have to make this a regular feature.

Generally, when an Eagles quarterback plays lights out, we pull out the [Insert Name Here] By the Numbers.

We did it for Nick Foles after his seven-touchdown game against the Raiders, we did it for Sam Bradford a couple times late last year, we did it for Michael Vick a couple times during his hot 2010 season.

With Wentz? This might have to happen every week.

He's been that good.

So here is this week's Carson Wentz By the Numbers. Don't be surprised if you see it again very soon.

• Wentz is the first rookie in NFL history to have a game in which he completed 74 percent of his passes with 300 yards, two or more touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s also only the fourth Eagle to have such a game. Randall Cunningham did it against the Giants in 1988, Donovan did it four times (in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007) and Nick Foles did it against the Raiders with his historic seven-TD game in 2013.

• Wentz is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 or more passes with no interceptions in each of his first three career games.

• Wentz’s 73-yard TD pass to Darren Sproles was the longest touchdown pass by an Eagles rookie since John Reaves' 77-yarder to Harold Carmichael against the Giants at Yankee Stadium in 1972.

• Wentz is only the second quarterback in NFL history to be 3-0 three games into his rookie year. The other one is former Eagle and current Cowboy Mark Sanchez, who opened his career in 2009 with wins over the Texans, Patriots and Titans. Sanchez then lost six of his next seven starts.

• Wentz is the fourth quarterback to win his first three NFL starts (not necessarily as rookies). That list includes Wentz, Sanchez, 35-year-old Dieter Brock of the Rams in 1985 (who had played a decade in the CFL) and Marc Bulger of the Rams in 2002 (in his third NFL season).

• Among quarterbacks who’ve thrown at least 100 passes in their career, Wentz now has the second-highest passer rating in NFL history at 103.8. He trails only Aaron Rodgers’ 104.0 figure. The only other quarterback over 100 is Russell Wilson, at 101.1.

• Wentz’s 125.9 passer rating Sunday against the Steelers is highest ever by an Eagles rookie. The previous high was A.J. Feeley’s 114.0 mark against Tampa in 2001. But Feeley didn’t start that game. So the previous high by a rookie Eagles starter was John Reaves’ 105.7 rating against the Browns in 1972.

• Wentz has already tied Mike Boryla’s franchise record for most wins by a rookie quarterback. Boryla won three games in 1974. Since then, Eagles rookie quarterbacks were a combined 5-21.  

• Wentz’s 102 pass attempts without an interception are the most in NFL history by a rookie in his first three games. Second-most are Dak Prescott’s current streak of 99 attempts. The record before Wentz and Prescott came along was 86 by Chad Hutchinson of the Cowboys in 2002.

• It was widely reported that Wentz had broken the NFL record for most pass attempts without an interception to begin a career at 102. But he actually has the second-longest streak. Tom Brady began his career with 147 attempts without an interception before getting picked off by safety Eric Brown of the Broncos in his seventh career game.  

• Wentz's 103.8 passer rating is third-highest in NFL history by a quarterback three games into his rookie year. His trails only Greg Cook of the Bengals (111.9 in 1969) and Marcus Mariota of the Titans (110.3 last year). Robert Griffin III (103.5 with the Redskins in 2012) and Jacky Lee (102.5 with the Oilers in 1960) are the only other quarterbacks over 100 after Week 3 of their rookie season (based on a minimum of 50 attempts).

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