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.

Aaron Altherr provides major spark in season debut to lead Phillies past Braves

Aaron Altherr provides major spark in season debut to lead Phillies past Braves

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies are still looking for the real Aaron Nola, but they may have found a useful bat Thursday night.

Aaron Altherr had the kind of season debut he’d dreamed about for the four months he was on the disabled list as he helped the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-5, at Turner Field (see Instant Replay).

Altherr was one of three Phillies to hit home runs on a night when the offense awakened after generating just one run the previous two days in Miami. Altherr, who came off the disabled list earlier in the day after missing four months with a wrist injury that required surgery (see story), drove a two-run homer to left in the fifth inning. Earlier in the game, Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph had back-to-back homers to headline a five-run first inning.

Franco leads the team with 19 homers and Joseph, hitting .375 with six homers in his last 17 games, has 14 in just 57 games with the club.

Altherr, who batted fifth behind Franco and Joseph, also had two hard singles in the game.

“He had a really good night in his debut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He provided a spark for us. He added to the offense. So I'm happy for that. It's good to get a win. We scored some runs, finally.”

Altherr was projected to be a starter in the Phillies’ opening day outfield until he suffered the wrist injury in spring training. He spent the last four months in Clearwater, rehabbing and, well, dreaming of a night like this.

“Definitely, especially sitting around thinking about how that first game's going to be being back,” he said. “For it to be like this, it was definitely special and I have to thank the Lord above for getting me back here as fast as He could.

“I was hoping to get a home run in the first game, but I definitely wasn't expecting it. Just hopeful. To have it happen like that was definitely awesome.

“It definitely surprised me a little bit because I hadn't really been driving the ball like I had wanted to down in my rehab stints. I'm just glad to know I've got [the power] in there somewhere.”

The Phillies hit all three of their home runs and scored all their runs against Atlanta right-hander Matt Wisler. He received a ticket to Triple A after the game.

The Phillies batted around against Wisler and scored five runs in the first inning. That was a welcome cushion for Nola, who desperately needed a win after failing to get one in his previous seven starts. The right-hander did manage to earn his first win since June 5, but it wasn’t exactly pretty. He lasted just five innings and threw a whopping 95 pitches as he continued to experience command issues that have been plaguing him in recent weeks.

Nola gave up eight hits and three runs. He walked three and hit a batter. That’s not Aaron Nola’s game. At least it wasn’t in his first 12 starts this season. He recorded a 2.65 ERA over that span and walked just 15 while striking out 85. He has walked 14 in his last eight starts.

“He's not the same guy,” Mackanin said. “He's just struggling with command once again. He's not dotting his fastball like he normally does. His curveball is erratic. He needs to get back on track.

“Sometimes it's harder to pitch when you have a big lead. You know you don't want to blow it. That can affect a pitcher as well. You have to have that mental toughness either way, whether it's a one-run game or an 8-0 game. You don't want to pitch poorly. There's a tendency, well, you have a five-run lead, should I throw more fastballs and challenge? But it was good to see he got a win. I'm happy for that. That should help him. He just needs to get to where he was. He's not there yet.”

Nola described his outing as “fairly OK,” which was probably right on. He got the win, but overall was not sharp. He allowed three runs in the fifth inning.

“I ran into some jams there,” he said. “I left some balls over the plate for them to hit. They took them the other way. The plan was to try to hit the outside part of the plate and they took it away.

“I feel like I have the command for the most part, but there’s some areas I still need to get better at and work to get better at.”

The Phillies used four relievers to close out the game. Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris pitched well. David Hernandez and Jeanmar Gomez did not. Gomez allowed three base runners and a run, but still managed to get the save. Hernandez allowed a hit and a pair of two-out walks before giving up an RBI double. A number of scouts from teams looking for bullpen help were on hand. Hernandez and Gomez probably did not help their trade value. Four days before the deadline, starter Jeremy Hellickson is still the Phillie most likely to be dealt.

Best of MLB: Sale loses in White Sox return, Chapman saves Cubs' 3-1 win

Best of MLB: Sale loses in White Sox return, Chapman saves Cubs' 3-1 win

CHICAGO -- Chris Sale returned from his jersey-trashing suspension and threw six effective innings, but John Lackey outpitched him and Aroldis Chapman got the final four outs to save the Cubs' 3-1 victory over the White Sox in Chicago's rivalry series Thursday night.

Sale (14-4) was greeted with smiles and hugs from his teammates following a five-day ban for tearing up 1976-style uniforms he didn't want to wear before his previous scheduled start. He had command issues, but worked out of trouble while allowing two runs and six hits.

Lackey (8-7) allowed one run in six innings for his first win since June 8. Chapman, in his second appearance since being acquired from the Yankees, struck out two and consistently hit 102 mph in his first save for his new team.

Kris Bryant, who homered against Sale in the All-Star Game, hit an RBI double off the center field wall in the first inning (see full recap). 

Diaz's homer helps Cardinals beat Marlins and Fernandez, 5-4
MIAMI -- Aledmys Diaz homered, doubled and drove in three runs against childhood pal Jose Fernandez, helping the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Miami Marlins 5-4 Thursday.

Fernandez gave up five runs in five innings and fell to 26-2 at Marlins Park.

Miami's Dee Gordon, the 2015 NL batting and stolen bases champion, returned from an 80-game suspension for failing a drug test and went 0 for 4. Ichiro Suzuki doubled as a pinch hitter in the seventh for Miami and needs two hits for 3,000.

Diaz and Matt Holliday homered in the third inning against Fernandez (12-5), who had never previously given up more than one homer in a home game. His only other loss at Marlins Park came on opening day this year against Detroit.

Michael Wacha (6-7) allowed three runs in six innings, and three relievers completed an eight-hitter. Seung Hwan Oh pitched around a one-out single in the ninth for his seventh save (see full recap). 

Familia falters again, Rockies rally for 2-1 win over Mets
NEW YORK -- Mets steady closer Jeurys Familia stumbled for a second straight game, allowing two runs in the ninth inning as the Colorado Rockies beat New York 2-1 Thursday for their seventh win in eight games.

Less than 24 hours after Familia's streak of 52 consecutive regular-season saves was snapped, the right-hander entered in the top of the ninth with a 1-0 lead, and couldn't hold it.

Trevor Story had a leadoff single and stole second. After fellow rookie David Dahl walked, Daniel Descalso bunted up the first base line. Mets catcher Rene Rivera watched as the ball spun toward foul territory but it stopped fair, loading the bases with no out.

With one out, Familia (2-3) got pinch-hitter Cristhian Adames to hit a slow grounder to the right side. First baseman James Loney booted the ball and Story scored to make it 1-all. Familia then threw a wild pitch, allowing Dahl to cross the plate with the go-ahead run (see full recap).

Instant Replay: Phillies 7, Braves 5

Instant Replay: Phillies 7, Braves 5

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Aaron Nola picked up his first win since June 5 as the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-5, at Turner Field on Thursday night.

Nola was supported by some strong offense. After scoring just one run in losing the previous two games in Miami, the Phils erupted for five runs in the first inning. They hit three homers in the game.

The Phillies had been winless in Nola’s previous seven starts.

The Phillies are 47-57.

The Braves have the worst record in the majors at 35-67.

Starting pitching report
Despite leaving with a 7-3 lead after five innings, Nola was not particularly sharp. He gave up eight hits (one was a fly ball that was lost in the twilight sky), walked three and hit a batter. He needed 95 pitches to get through the five innings.

Nola is 6-9 with a 4.78 ERA in 20 starts.

Atlanta’s Matt Wisler gave up seven hits and seven runs in five innings. Five of the runs came in the first inning when the Phillies batted around. Wisler allowed two homers, two singles and walked two in the inning.

Bullpen report
David Hernandez was the first Phillies reliever out of the bullpen. He struggled. But Edubray Ramos, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez combined to close it out.

Gomez allowed two hits, a walk and a run in the ninth, but earned his 27th save.

At the plate
Aaron Altherr, activated off the disabled list earlier in the day (see story), had a big night in his first game of the season with the big club. He hit the ball hard all night and had three hits, including a two-run homer in the fifth.

Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph hit back-to-back homers in the first inning. Franco’s was a three-run shot. He leads the club with 19 homers. Joseph has 14 homers in 57 games.

Adonis Garcia had two hits and two RBIs for the Braves.

Transaction 
Peter Bourjos was placed on the disabled list and Altherr was activated (see story).

Up next
The series continues Friday night. Vince Velasquez (8-2, 3.34) pitches against Atlanta right-hander Tyrell Jenkins (0-2, 6.17).