Big Macs, Comebacks and All-Stars: Jrue Holiday, Thad Young and the Best Sixers Win of the Season

Big Macs, Comebacks and All-Stars: Jrue Holiday, Thad Young and the Best Sixers Win of the Season

Hands up if you saw this coming. With the Sixers trailing 60-43 at
half—yes, they gave up 60 points to the friggin' Raptors in 24 minutes
of basketball—you'd be forgiven for giving up on this one (as I was
seriously tempted to do) and finding something more purposeful and less
character-building to do with your Friday night. After all, the Sixers
haven't exactly been known for big comebacks this season—generally, when
they're down, they stay down, and the game's basically over halfway
through the fourth quarter. But it wasn't so in this one, and the reason
why has two names: Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young.

First, the
bad stuff. The Sixers couldn't have been much more aimless on defense in
the first half, rotating abysmally and constantly letting shooters like
Alan Anderson and Terrence Ross lose them on picks. The Sixers gave up
countless open shots, always a step behind, and the Raptors didn't miss,
hitting seven of their first ten threes. On offense, the Sixers
suffered their typical half-court malaise in the first quarter, and
though things picked up a bit for them in the second, it looked like the
Raps had already sped too far ahead to be caught.

But the
Sixers started to chop into that lead into the third, seemingly finding a
new gear on defense and managing to stay with the shooters and not get
killed on the boards in the process. Meanwhile, the Sixers started
finding a groove on offense, and though neither of them were the game's
co-MVPs, Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen deserve a lot of credit tonight for
jump-starting the team with a couple nice hookups for easy baskets in
the third, Evan finishing with seven assists and Lavoy with a dozen
points. The Sixers chopped the lead down to single digits and in the
fourth even took a brief one-point lead one a Spencer Hawes putback.

A
Toronto counter-run seemed inevitable, and finally came a couple
minutes into the fourth, where the Raps hit a couple tough
shots—including a Lowry three to beat the shot clock that he chucked up
hoping just to draw iron—to extend the lead back out to ten. The Sixers
were still playing well, and four straight Thad buckets (most on Jrue
assists) made it a game again, but a failed Jrue-Thad hookup—where Jrue
lobbed up an oop for Thad off a pick-and-roll, but the forward didn't
recognize the lob in time and fumbled it out—looked to seal the game for
the Sixers, down four with a minute to go. A Thad dunk on the next
possession cut it to two with ten seconds to go, but it appeared to be
too little, too late.

Then things got interesting. Anderson hit a
pair of FTs for the Raps, but Spence got a quick two back on the other
end, resetting the situation with six seconds to go. The Raps failed to
inbound the ball and called a TO to regroup, then struggled a second
time inbound the ball, eventually throwing the ball away. (You could say
Nick Young fouled on that inbounds, but I wouldn't, and luckily the ref
didn't.) Then Jrue took the ball to the hoop with serious purpose,
laying it in and drawing contact, but not getting a whistle for the
and-one. Overtime.

The OT-forcing lay-in would only be the
beginning for Jrue, who was already having a remarkable game to that
point (more on that later). From there, all he did was score all 12
Sixer points in the OT period, including a steal and fast-break dunk to
kick off the quarter, and a long three to immediately answer a three hit
by Jose Calderon at the other end, effectively putting the game out of
reach for the Raps, who would only score five points in the OT, seven
less than Jrue notched on his lonesome. Final Score: Sixers 108, Raptors
101.

The numbers for Jrue in this one are obviously remarkable.
33 points (tied for a career high) on sparkling 13-23 shooting, with 14
assists (one off a career high, and all before OT) to go with just
three turnovers, along with five boards, three steals, and fine defense
on dynamic opposing PG Kyle Lowry, who scored just 11 on the game on
3-11 shooting, with one of those makes coming on that prayer three in
the fourth. Taken in tandem with the 30 and nine he put up against
Houston on Saturday and the 29 and 11 he went for Tuesday in the loss to
New Orleans, I don't think it'd be any kind of exaggeration to say Jrue
is playing the best ball of his career—and some of the best ball in the
league—in the last week.

But beyond the numbers, The Damaja did
something tonight that I can't remember ever seeing a Sixer do quite
like this in the post-Iverson era: He straight-up took over when the
team needed him most. He did it mostly in the second half with his
passing, setting up his shooters and finding Thad in all his sweet
spots, and obviously he did it at the end of regulation and in overtime
with his scoring, which he can do better than all but a handful of lead
guards in the league. By game's end, he was running out of ways to
impress. Anybody Eastern Conference coach who watched tonight's game and
still doesn't believe Jrue Holiday is an All-Star is not my friend.

All
that said, the Sixers still don't get anywhere close tonight without
Thaddeus Young. Thad was basically the only Sixer putting ball in basket
in the fourth quarter, finishing around the hoop and with the jumper
and just playing with tremendous energy, scrapping his way to 14
rebounds and a couple loose balls, also registering three steals and a
block. The days when Thad's ability to become a satisfactory starting
power forward seem very much behind us now, and though he may never be
an All-Star, he can absolutely be the fourth best player on a really,
really good team.

Sixers CEO Adam Aron called this win the
biggest of the year for the Sixers, and sad as that is to say about an
overtime W against a division-worst team at home, he's right. The Sixers
very badly needed something to turn the momentum of their season
around, and in more practical terms, they needed to not fall eight games
(!!) under .500, and if the Sixers somehow do manage to scrape their
way back into the playoff race, you'll have to look back at tonight's
win as the jumping off point for the reversal of the team's fortunes.
And if not, hopefully it at least secured our franchise point guard his
first All-Star appearance.

The high will likely be short-lived,
as the Sixers face the West-owning Spurs on Monday. But Sixer fans will
at least get the weekend to savor this one, the first truly feel-good
win for the team in 2013.

Simmering issue: Pete Mackanin says he will continue to trim Ryan Howard's playing time

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Simmering issue: Pete Mackanin says he will continue to trim Ryan Howard's playing time

CHICAGO – The Ryan Howard drama continues to simmer.
 
Howard’s dwindling production has led to dwindling playing time. He did not start against a right-handed pitcher for the second time in eight days on Sunday (see game recap).
 
After the game, manager Pete Mackanin addressed the uncomfortable situation and said he would continue to trim Howard’s playing time against right-handers because he wants to look at Tommy Joseph, who has 10 hits, including three homers and a double, in his first 35 big-league at-bats.
 
“We brought Joseph up here for a reason, to get a look at him,” Mackanin said. “I can’t let him stagnate on the bench like (Darin) Ruf ended up doing, so he’s going to face some right-handed pitchers to keep his timing. I don’t know when the next time we’re going to face a left-handed pitcher is, but I’m going to use (Joseph) a little bit more often than I did Ruf.”
 
Since the end of last July, Howard has gone from being a full-time player to a platoon guy, facing just righties. Now, he’s migrating toward more of a reserve role.
 
Taking away playing time from a club icon – Howard is a former NL MVP and World Series champion -- is not easy, but Mackanin has little choice. Howard is hitting .154 with eight homers and 18 RBIs in 136 at-bats over 44 games. He has struck out in 33 percent of his plate appearances. Howard’s average for the month of May is .097 (6 for 62) and he has 25 strikeouts. He recently used the word “brutal” to describe how the month of May has been going.
 
Mackanin was asked about Howard’s mindset in relation to losing playing time.
 
“I don’t know how he feels,” Mackanin said. “I’m sure we’ll talk to him and we’ll go from there. The important thing is that we brought Joseph up here to get a look at him, and as I said, if he sits on the bench for a week or 10 days and we don’t get a look at him, what’s the point of bringing him up?”
 
Howard started Saturday against Cubs’ righty Kyle Hendricks and went hitless.
 
After Sunday's game, Howard was asked if he was surprised to see he was not in the lineup.
 
“I guess, yeah,” he said. “But I don’t make the lineup. The manager makes the lineup. I just show up. If I’m in there, I’m in there, if I’m not, I’m not."
 
Howard said he was unaware of Mackanin’s intention to sit him more against righties.
 
“I haven’t heard anything about sitting more against righties,” he said. “I haven’t been called into the office and talked to about it, so you guys apparently have breaking news before I do.”
 
Howard's status in the lineup and with the team has been an issue for almost two years. Before the 2015 season, former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. admitted it would be best if Howard moved on. The Phillies tried to trade him last year, but there was no interest. 

Howard is in the final year of a five-year, $125 million contract that did not kick in until after he suffered a devastating Achilles tendon rupture on his final swing of the 2011 season.
 
He is still owed more that $26 million in salary for 2016 and an option year buyout for 2017.

Howard isn't walking away from that kind of money.

Would the team release him to solve this uncomfortable situation? Or will it ride out the final four months of the season and the contract with Howard as a part-time player?

Time will tell.

Phillies swept out of Chicago with another loss to MLB-best Cubs

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Phillies swept out of Chicago with another loss to MLB-best Cubs

CHICAGO – The Phillies are rebuilding.

The Chicago Cubs are focused on winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

And they have a team that can do it.

So the events of the last three days at Wrigley Field were not that surprising.

The Phillies suffered a three-game sweep, capped off by Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 loss.

When the Phillies departed Citizens Bank Park last week, they had a 25-19 record and were one of the surprise teams in the majors.

But the trip to Detroit and Chicago figured to be a stiff test. The Tigers pound the baseball. The Cubs do everything.

In the end, the Phillies won just one of the six games on the trip. They limp home at 26-24 for a matchup Monday night with the Washington Nationals.

Is the Phillies’ unexpected, early-season magic fading?

“That’s up for debate, I guess,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “Every team goes through a hot streak and a cold streak. How you come out those streaks, especially now with a cold streak, determines how good of a team you are. I choose to believe we’re at the bottom of the roller coaster and on our way up.”

The Phils were outscored 17-5 by the Cubs in this weekend’s series. The Cubs’ starting pitchers – Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey – combined to allow just three earned runs in 22 ⅓ innings. And Jake Arrieta, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, did not appear in the series.

After Sunday’s game, Mackanin was asked what he learned about his club on the trip.

“I didn’t learn anything about my team,” he said. “I learned first-hand that the Cubs have a lot going for them. They’re a good team, probably the best team in baseball right now and they beat us fair and square.”

They do have the best record in the majors at 34-14.

It was not surprising to hear that Mackanin didn’t learn anything about his club during the trip. He knows the Phillies are rebuilding and have glaring holes. He knows the pitching has kept them in games and allowed them to win a bunch by one run. He also knows it’s difficult to sustain that with a team that averages just 3.22 runs per game, second-lowest in the majors. Sunday marked the 19th time the Phillies have scored two or fewer runs.

Looking for more offense, Mackanin sent Ryan Howard to the bench Sunday against a right-handed pitcher and used Tommy Joseph. Joseph hit a homer in the ninth inning. After the game, Mackanin said he would continue to get Joseph playing time against right-handers.

Power-armed right-hander Vince Velasquez had a difficult trip. Against two of the toughest lineups in baseball, he pitched 8 ⅔ innings over two starts. He gave up 18 hits, five of which were homers, and 10 earned runs. The Cubs got him for nine hits and seven runs in 4 ⅔ innings. He gave up two homers, a solo shot in the second and a three-run blow in the third.

The three-run homer, by Ben Zobrist, gave the Cubs a 5-0 lead and ignited the daily Happy Hour in the stands.

Two batters before Zobrist homered, Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis failed to make a play on a hard-hit one-hopper by Kris Bryant. Galvis backed up and gloved the hot smash, but threw quickly, off-balance and wildly to first. It was ruled a hit. Had Galvis made the play, it would have ended the inning. Instead, Velasquez issued a two-out walk to extend the inning further and Zobrist hit the two-out homer.

“I don’t know why Freddy got rid of the ball so quick,” Mackanin said. “I thought he could have planted and thrown it over there. But I’m not going to be critical of Freddy Galvis. He’s been unbelievable, just outstanding.”

Zobrist’s homer was one of six the Cubs hit in the three games. Two of them were three-run shots. The Phillies had just two homers in the series. Both came Sunday after the club was down 7-0.

“We didn’t string hits together,” Mackanin said.

Rookie Alexander Rossi pulls off upset win at 100th Indianapolis 500

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Rookie Alexander Rossi pulls off upset win at 100th Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS -- A new era for the Indianapolis 500 arrived in the form of a most unfamiliar driver.

An American, no less.

Alexander Rossi outlasted his faster rivals - and his fuel tank - for a stunning victory Sunday in the historic 100th running of "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing." The unlikely win allowed the long-suffering Andretti family to celebrate in the biggest race of their storied careers and it left the top drivers in the field fuming over Rossi's good fortune.

Rossi was a 66-to-1 long shot and certainly not the driver anyone would have picked to win. But the 24-year-old Californian used fuel strategy to outsmart a handful of drivers who had the most dominant cars in the race.

Rossi stretched his final tank of gas 90 miles to cycle into the lead as others had to duck into the pits for a splash of fuel in the waning laps. He was sputtering on the final lap, working his clutch and getting screamed at by team co-owner Bryan Herta to conserve fuel, and he ultimately ran out of gas after taking the checkered flag.

His victory celebration came only after his Honda was towed to the party. He sat in the car for some time before climbing out to take that sweet sip of milk.

"I have no idea how we pulled that off," he declared.

"I really was focused on taking it one lap at a time," Rossi said. "The emotional roller-coaster of this race is ridiculous. There were moments I was really stoked, really heartbroken, really stoked. I was like, `Wow, I'll need to see a psychiatrist after this.'"

Rossi didn't have the speed of Carlos Munoz, who was charging hard over the final 50 miles. But Munoz also had to stop for gas and didn't have a chance to race his teammate for the victory, even though Rossi was running on fumes and completed the final lap at a snail's pace of 179.784 mph.

The Colombian settled for second in a 1-2 finish for Andretti Autosport. He seemed devastated after his second runner-up finish in four years.

"I was really disappointed when it comes with fuel and you lose the race because of that," Munoz said. "I was really disappointed to get second. Half a lap short. What can I say? The only thing I'm clear about is that I will win this race one day."

Munoz has contended at Indy before and he's proven to be fast at the speedway.

Rossi? Well, not many know much about him at all.

He's an IndyCar rookie who has chased a ride in Formula One since he was 10. He left for Europe when he was 16 and never pursued a career in American open-wheel racing. But stuck without a ride this year, he made the decision to return to the United States to race and became the ninth rookie to win the 500 and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001.

Rossi understood full well that it was strategy that got him this win, and he knows what an Indy 500 victory means.

"I have no doubt it's going to change my life," he said.

Although he's a relief driver for Manor Racing in F1, Rossi has no scheduled F1 races and IndyCar right now is his top commitment. He was lured back to America this year to drive for Herta in a partnership with Andretti Autosport. Herta was the winning car owner in 2011 with Dan Wheldon, the actual 100th anniversary of the first race in 1911, and now can claim a win in the 100th actual race.

"I can't compare (the wins) other than to say I am so happy," Herta said. " I can't overstate how hard it was for Alex to do what I was asking of him on the radio."

This Herta effort relied heavily on its alliance with Andretti, and the family was hoping Marco Andretti would give them their first Indy 500 title since patriarch Mario Andretti won in 1969.

Instead, Marco Andretti never contended on a day at least three of his teammates were clearly among the best in the field. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell combined to lead 64 of the first 119 laps, but the Americans were knocked from contention when Bell clipped Castroneves as he left pit road. The contact caused Bell to crash into Hunter-Reay.

"Ryan and Townsend looked really good up front, we thought they would be the team to beat," team owner Michael Andretti said. "Unfortunately, they had their problem in the pit, which I could not believe, and I thought that may have been our shot at winning."

Herta decided to gamble with Rossi on fuel strategy, and it's the only thing that made him a late contender.

As the laps wound down, American Josef Newgarden and Munoz repeatedly swapped the lead. Both had to stop for gas, Rossi moved into the lead and it was all his from there.

Michael Andretti earlier this month was voted by the 27 living winners as the best driver never to win the race, but he has now won the 500 four times as a car owner.

"I knew Alex was going to try (the fuel strategy), and we said `Alright, if he's going to try it, we're going to try something else (with Munoz)," Andretti said. "To come home 1-2 is just incredible. It was amazing. I don't know what to say, it's a great day, to be a part of history, to win the 100th running, and to win it with a 1-2 finish is just incredible."

Newgarden finished third and was followed by Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand as Chevrolet drivers took spots three through six.

Newgarden, along with Hunter-Reay, Bell, Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe, had the strongest cars most of the race. Hinchcliffe, the pole winner who missed this race last year after a near-fatal accident in a practice session, faded to seventh despite being one of the best cars in the field.

"If I was in Alex's position, I'd be the happiest person in the world right now, I wouldn't care how we won the damn race," Newgarden said. "Everyone was on different strategies, and they played that strategy. Those guys, to put it politely, weren't as strong as us. They didn't have as strong a chance to win, so they had to mix it up. It worked out at the end for them."

In front of the first sellout in Indy 500 history, Rossi stunned the more than 350,000 fans in attendance. He was in Monaco this time last year for F1's signature race, unsure of what his future held.

"I had no idea I'd be in IndyCar, I had no idea I'd be in the Indy 500," said Rossi, who becomes the 70th winner in race history.

He will now also become the 103rd face on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy.