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.

Wideouts Rueben Randle, Chris Givens among 8 players cut by Eagles Sunday

Wideouts Rueben Randle, Chris Givens among 8 players cut by Eagles Sunday

The Eagles released Rueben Randle and Chris Givens on Sunday, ending the brief and disappointing Eagles careers of both veteran wide receivers.

The two receivers were among eight players released by the team on Sunday evening.

Randle caught five passes for 26 yards in the preseason and Givens caught one for 19 yards.

The Eagles tried to bolster their receiver corps by adding the two receivers this offseason, signing Randle to a one-year, $1,025,000 contract and Givens to a one-year $760,000 deal.

Randle got $500,000 guaranteed and Givens $180,000 guaranteed, so the two moves will count $680,000 against the Eagles’ 2016 adjusted salary cap of $161,570,362.

The moves leave the Eagles with eight wide receivers: Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, Josh Huff, Paul Turner, Marcus Johnson, Cayleb Jones and David Watford.

Barring any other personnel moves, Matthews, Agholor, Green-Beckham, Huff and Turner appear headed for the final 53-man roster.

Randle’s decline is fairly astonishing.

Two years ago with the Giants, he caught 71 passes for 938 yards, and last year he caught 57 passes for 797 yards and eight touchdowns. He had four catches of 40 yards or more in 2015, fourth-most in the NFL. In four seasons in New York, he caught 188 passes for 2,644 yards and 20 TDs.

Yet the Giants had no interest in re-signing him. Now the former second-round pick’s career is in jeopardy at the age of 25.

Givens, a fourth-round pick of the Rams in 2012, was with his third team in two years this summer. His once-promising career could be over at the age of 26.

Most notable among the six other players released was offensive tackle Andrew Gardner, who started 11 games in an Eagles uniform.

Gardner, who had also spent time with the Dolphins and Texans, started eight games at right guard and right tackle for the Eagles in 2014 and was the Eagles’ opening-day starter last year at right guard. He suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot during a Week 3 game against the Jets at the Meadowlands and missed the rest of the season.

Also released was a member of last year’s draft class, sixth-round pick Randall Evans out of Kansas State. Evans spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad but was activated for the Pat Shurmur season finale against the Giants at the Meadowlands and got into the game on special teams.

The Eagles also released veteran defensive tackle Mike Martin, who played in 46 games for the Titans the last four years, including five starts. Also released were long snapper John DePalma and cornerback Denzel Rice, the latter of who played in five games last year and got 20 defensive snaps in the season finale against the Giants last year.

The Eagles also placed linebacker Joe Walker (knee) and defensive end Alex McCalister (calf), two rookie seventh-round picks, on season-ending Injured Reserve.

Teams have until Tuesday to reduce rosters to 75. The Eagles’ roster is currently at 73, and they have to reduce it to 53 by 4 p.m. next Sunday.

The Eagles finish the preseason on Thursday night at the Linc against the Jets.

Best of MLB: Josh Donaldson mashes 3 home runs to lead Blue Jays past Twins

Best of MLB: Josh Donaldson mashes 3 home runs to lead Blue Jays past Twins

TORONTO -- Josh Donaldson had his first career three-homer game, Troy Tulowitzki also went deep and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Minnesota Twins 9-6 on Sunday to complete a three-game sweep.

Donaldson hit a solo homer off Kyle Gibson in the second, then delivered a go-ahead, two-run blast off Pat Light (0-1) in the seventh.

Dozens of fans tossed hats onto the field to celebrate the home run hat trick after Donaldson, the AL MVP in 2015, hit a solo shot off Alex Wimmers in the eighth. Groundskeepers and even the Blue Jays mascot helped clear the hats away.

Donaldson's fourth multi-homer game this season and the 10th of his career also marked the 17th three-homer game in the majors this season.

Jose Bautista had his first three-hit game of the season for the AL East-leading Blue Jays.

Minnesota lost its season-worst 10th straight. The Twins have lost seven straight in Toronto.

Scott Feldman (7-4) earned the win by getting two outs in the seventh. Jason Grilli worked the eighth and Roberto Osuna finished (see full recap). 

Pirates win 8th straight on road, sweep Brewers 3-1
MILWAUKEE -- Ivan Nova threw six sharp innings before leaving early because of a hurting left hamstring and the Pittsburgh Pirates hit three solo homers to rally past the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1 on Sunday for their eighth straight road victory.

John Jaso and Gregory Polanco each homered in the sixth off Brewers starter Chase Anderson (7-11) to complete Pittsburgh's first sweep at Miller Park since 2004. Starling Marte added a solo shot in the eighth.

Nova (4-0) retired 10 of his final 11 batters after allowing Jonathan Villar's solo homer in the third. He scattered three hits and struck out four before being pinch hit for in the seventh.

Tony Watson pitched a clean ninth for his 10th save in 13 opportunities (see full recap).

Archer strikes out 10, Rays hit 3 HRs in 10-4 win vs Astros
HOUSTON -- Chris Archer struck out 10 in seven innings, Corey Dickerson hit a three-run homer and the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Houston Astros 10-4 on Sunday.

Matt Duffy and Nick Franklin also went deep for the last-place Rays, who have homered in 21 of their last 24 games.

Houston, in the hunt for an AL wild card, had won three straight.

Archer (8-17) gave up three runs and four hits with two walks. With his strikeout of A.J. Reed in the sixth, the right-hander joined David Price and James Shields as the only Tampa Bay pitchers with multiple 200-strikeout seasons.

The Rays jumped out early against Doug Fister.

Fister (12-9) allowed four runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings, the fourth time in his past seven starts he has permitted four or more runs (see full recap). 

Calming presence behind plate, A.J. Ellis provides offensive spark in Phillies' win over Mets

Calming presence behind plate, A.J. Ellis provides offensive spark in Phillies' win over Mets

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- A.J. Ellis’ first game as a Phillie certainly went a lot better than Carlos Ruiz’s first game as a Dodger.

Ellis’ first hit with his new club helped the Phils salvage one game of a weekend series with the New York Mets on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies won it, 5-1 (see Instant Replay), behind a solid start from Vince Velasquez, excellent bullpen work and Ellis’ big hit, a tie-breaking, two-run double in the top of the seventh.

The Phillies had lost the first two games of the series by a combined score of 21-5. Their pitchers gave up eight homers in the first two games.

On Sunday, Velasquez and a quartet of relievers held the Mets to seven hits, all singles.

Ellis joined the Phillies just 24 hours earlier after being traded from the Dodgers on Thursday. He had been with that club his whole career.

Ruiz, of course, had been with the Phillies his whole career.

Ruiz’s first game with the Dodgers did not go nearly as smooth. The veteran catcher had trouble handling the pitches of closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning Friday night and that contributed to the Dodgers blowing a one-run lead and losing to the Chicago Cubs in 10 innings.

Leaving the Dodgers was difficult and emotional for Ellis. He was able to bury himself in the game Sunday and came away feeling pretty good.

“It’s just great to be playing baseball again,” he said, standing in front of his locker, a blue Dodgers equipment bag (that will soon be swapped out for a Phillies bag) at his feet. “You kind of lose yourself in the competition and then just play again.

“Regardless of what’s happened in the last four days, it feels good to drive in runs, feels good to help put your team ahead and help contribute to a team win.”

During his 24 or so hours with the Phillies, Ellis has immersed himself in learning a new staff of pitchers. He caught starters Jerad Eickhoff and Jake Thompson in the bullpen before Saturday’s game and warmed up several relievers during that game.

On Sunday morning, he arrived at Citi Field, saw his name in the lineup and immediately began prepping to catch Velasquez, the hardest-thrower on the Phillies’ starting staff.

Velasquez bounced back from three poor outings in which he gave up 19 runs in 17 1/3 innings and held a hot Mets lineup to a run over five innings. The only negative was that Velasquez could not pitch deeper into the game because his command was poor and needed 103 pitches to complete the five innings.

Nonetheless, Ellis, who was the personal catcher for Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles, liked what he saw of Velasquez.

“His pitch count got elevated the first two innings and he was able to grind through the last three,” Ellis said. “The stuff is electric. He has so many weapons, so many options. When he keeps growing and keeps polishing that gift up, it’s going to be really, really special.

“So I’m excited to be able to continue to work with him, excited to work with him and (pitching coach) Bob McClure and (No. 1 catcher) Cameron Rupp, kind of talk to them about things, things he sees, things we see, and together we can build a plan for him going forward in his career.”

Two things are going to help the 24-year-old Velasquez reach his potential.

First is good health. He’s had arm problems in the past and there remain concerns about his long-term durability. That’s why the Phillies are closely monitoring his workload as this season winds down.

Second is command, control, economy of pitches – whatever you want to call it. Velasquez needs to be more efficient. Too many times he’s left games in the middle innings because of a high pitch count.

“Definitely,” he responded when asked if lowering his pitch counts and working deeper into games was the key to his improvement. “It’s going to help the longevity, it saves the bullpen, it helps out everybody. Not just on my end, but the whole team in general.

“And,” he joked, “then I can also work on my swing by getting some more at-bats.”

Despite the high pitch count, Velasquez walked just one. He struck out seven. He is up to 129 innings for the season. That includes five innings in a rehab game at Double A Reading. The Phillies will look to keep him at about 150 innings for the season. That could be three, four or five more starts, depending on how long the right-hander lasts. He’s averaged just over five innings in his starts this season.

“I think that would be the right move,” Velasquez said of the 150-inning target.