Game One Thoughts: Sixers Surge Late, Come Up Short in Miami

Game One Thoughts: Sixers Surge Late, Come Up Short in Miami

For a mintue there, it looked like the Sixers
were following the script of 2009's game one in Orlando to the letter.
Down double digits for most of the second half in a game where it seemed
like they were just a little bit out of their league, Philly surged in
the fourth quarter to cut the lead to a one-possession game with just a
few minutes to go. But there would be no Andre Iguodala go-ahead
18-footer in the final seconds of this one, as the Sixers failed to
capitalize on a few key opportunities, and the Heat were able to do just
enough to keep the team at arm's length and secure the 97-89 victory.

All in all, it was an admirable effort. There were times in the third
quarter where Miami's big three seemed to be taking turns hitting shots
they had absolutely no business making, and you start thinking to
yourself "This isn't fair—Miami are just so much better than we are!"
But the Heat were also one of the few teams this NBA season with as many
late-game meltdowns as the Sixers, and just by hanging tough (thanks
mainly to Thad and Jrue), the Liberty Ballers were able to make much
more of a game out of it than anyone could have expected. Now, you end
up walking away from this game not thinking "Oh God, we're gonna get
swept!" but "Hey, a couple different things go our way, who knows?"

Now, there's been a lot of talk about the foul disparity in this game,
which was indeed considerable—the Heat shot 39 to our 15, and for a
strech in the second quarter it seemed like Miami was getting whistles
every time they trotted down the lane, apparently regardless of contact
level. But I'm not going to put all that much stock in this—the Heat
have two of the greatest free-throw drawers of all-time, guys who are
going to get calls that they probably shouldn't on name alone, whereas
no one on the Sixers averages even five free throw attempts a game, the
team ranking 26th in the NBA for the season. Besides, the home team is
always gonna get a bit of an advantage in a series like this. A couple
instances were pretty egregious, and if the trend persists all the way
to Philadelphia, then I'll get on my high horse about it. But for the
time being, I'm not gonna call conspiracy, and I'm not gonna hang this L
on the refs.

Rather, I think we have to hang this one on our guys being a little
over-amped on occasion. After that dynamite first quarter, where the
team outscored the Heat 31-19, out-hustling them seemingly at every
opportunity, the adrenaline seemed to get the best of them, as the guys
blew more layups and close-range jumpers than I've seen them do maybe
for any stretch all year. And in the final minutes, even as they made
some incredible plays to get back in the game (namely that Thad
alley-oop across his body and falling down), they failed to convert on
the easy ones–Thad going 0-2 from the line on a key trip before his oop,
Iguodala rimming out a good-looking elbow jumper, Elton missing an open
free-throw-line jumper that he hits with ease 80% of the time—any one
of which could have ended up making the difference in this game. You
can't criticze the effort, but the execution after that first quarter
was often very sloppy.

Still, as out-of-their-depth as they seemed at times, the Sixers
deserve credit for doing what they had to do to keep the game in reach.
Despite the incredible number of free throws they gave up, Philly did a
fairly respectable job on the defensive end, 'Dre doing an impressive
job of checking LeBron (with Evan Turner getting some good minutes in
against him as well), Jrue and Jodie doing their part to make Wade take
some tough jumpers (many of which he made, but still) and the entire
team doing a good job of closing out on the team's shooters, holding
them to just 4-17 from beyond the arc. If anyone really caused problems
for the Liberty Ballers yesterday—and who might continue to for the rest
of the series—it's Chris Bosh. Bosh (25 points, 12 rebounds) had a
couple inches on each of his most regular offenders (Elton and Thad),
and when he's hitting his jumper, and getting them off good feeds from
Wade and LeBron off Sixer double-teams, it's awful tough to stop him.
But you can't shut down everyone on this team, and if you want to let
any of Miami's Big Three beat you, it's probably Bosh, who at the very
least will occasionally have games when he just isn't hitting,
regardless of defense (*cough* 1-18 *cough*).

And despite a couple of the dumb misses on the other end of the
floor, it's hard to fault any of the Sixers' individual offensive
performances yesterday too much either. Elton carried the team early,
ending with 17 points on 8-14 shooting, and Thad proved as much of a
handful for the Heat as Bosh was for us late, scoring double digits in
the fourth and motoring the team's huge comeback. Jrue hit some huge
threes, and wisely took advantage of his size and speed over Heat PG
Mike Bibby, getting to the foul line a team-high six times and posting
the Sixers' best-overall statline (19 points, five boards, five dimes,
three steals, no turnovers). And while some have gotten on 'Dre for only
scoring four points (and only taking seven shots), I'm fine with
that—if #9 is still doing everything else on the floor (nine assists,
eight rebounds, fine defense on LeBron), I think it's probably for the
best if he doesn't get into Hero Mode on offense, a role which has never
suited 'Dre particularly well and has often had disastrous results this
season.

Ultimately, though it's disappointing that the team wasn't able to
complete the comeback and officially put the Heat on notice in this
series, you really can't walk away feeling too bad about this one. The
Heat proved that they were the more talented team, no doubt, but they
also showed a vulnerability in those first and fourth quarters that's
probably making Miami fans across the country (chortle) loosen their
collars a little bit. Does it mean that the Sixers actually have a
legitimate chance in this series? No, not yet, not really. But it does
mean that they have a chance to at least make it a series, to
steal a game or two and see what happens from there. A couple more
converted layups, a couple less foul calls, and we're right there. You
gotta respect the heart, and you gotta keep the faith a little.

Game two Monday in Miami, 7:00 on TNT. I can't wait for our boys to get back out there.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: All eyes on Jeremy Hellickson

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Phillies-Nationals 5 things: All eyes on Jeremy Hellickson

Phillies (26-24) vs. Nationals (30-21)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

After a 1-5 road trip that concluded with a sweep at the hands of the MLB-best Chicago Cubs, the Phillies return home to face another strong opponent in the NL East-leading Washington Nationals. Can a return to Citizens Bank Park be an answer to the Phillies' woes?

Here's that and everything else you need to know for the Phils' Memorial Day showdown with the Nationals:

1. Power outage
The Phillies started last week 25-19 but ended it just two games over .500 after getting outslugged by the Tigers and Cubs. In the Cubs' series, the Phils mustered just five runs.

Through 50 games, the Phillies are averaging just 3.2 runs, narrowly ahead of the MLB-worst Atlanta Braves. Manager Pete Mackanin is taking some steps to rectify that, namely reducing Ryan Howard's playing time so the team can get a good look at rookie first baseman Tommy Joseph (see story).

Joseph alone won't be able to get the Phillies on the right track. The Phillies need to start getting more contributions throughout the lineup. Leadoff man Odubel Herrera is batting .320 and Tyler Goedell is hitting .313 in May, but those two have been the only other bright spots in the Phils' lineup recently.

While the Phillies sport a 4-2 record against the Nationals this season, they have just 15 runs in those six games. Luckily for the Phils, the Nationals haven't exactly been playing top notch baseball of late.

2. What have the Nats been up to?
When the Nationals began a three-game set in Washington against the Phillies in late April, they were 14-5 and sat three games up in the NL East. However, since the Phillies swept them, the Nationals have gone just 15-14.

The Nats just finished an up -and-down week by splitting a four-game set with the St. Louis Cardinals and losing two of three to the Mets. Washington tends to rely on Bryce Harper, who is currently mired in a slump.

Harper had just four hits in his 24 at-bats against the Mets and Cardinals. He failed to draw a walk in either series and struck out four times. The 2015 NL MVP is 1 for 3 with two walks this season against Monday's starter, Jeremy Hellickson. 

Former Phillies Jayson Werth and Ben Revere have helped pick up the slack, however. Werth's pinch-hit grand slam Sunday sealed the Nationals' win over the Cards. Revere has five multi-hit games in his last nine starts.  

3. All eyes on Hellickson
Hellickson is the man tasked with taming Nationals' bats that produced 10 runs Sunday. Hellickson's first matchup against the Nats was his worst start of the season, while his second start was his best. 

On April 15 at Citzens Bank Park, Hellickson gave up six runs — five earned — in just three innings, his shortest start of the year. He gave up a home run to the first batter he saw (Michael Taylor) and allowed a three-run double to Werth.

So expectations weren't high on April 27 when the veteran righty faced the Nationals in Washington. However, Hellickson came through for the Phillies on that day. He allowed just two hits in seven scoreless innings and struck out eight. 

Which Hellickson will we see this time? It's tough to tell, but he has produced quality starts in his last three outings, a good sign of things to come.

4. Ready for Roark?
The Nationals have some true aces in their rotation with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. But Tanner Roark has emerged as another go-to guy in the rotation in the first two months of 2016. 

The 29-year-old pitcher shuffled between the rotation and bullpen last season, finishing with a 4.38 ERA in 40 appearances. However, the righty has returned to form with 10 strong starts, including seven shutout innings against the Phillies on April 28.

After giving up seven runs to the Marlins on May 14, Roark rebounded with quality starts against the Marlins and Mets, giving up just three runs in his last 13⅔ innings in those contests.

Historically, the Phillies have gotten the best of Roark. He has a 2-5 record with a 5.55 ERA in 35⅔ innings, including an 8.27 ERA at Citizens Bank Park.

5. This and that
• Howard is 4 for 12 with one home run and six RBIs in his career against Roark. Herrera has three hits and a walk in seven plate appearances.

• Harper is 3 for 6 with five walks against Hellickson. Werth is 3 for 11 with two doubles and a homer against Hellickson.  

• The Phillies are 2-5 in the first game of a home series this season. The Nationals are 5-3 in the first game of road series. 

Flyers 2015-16 Evaluations Part 1: Goaltenders

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Flyers 2015-16 Evaluations Part 1: Goaltenders

If there's one thing the Flyers proved during the 2015-16 season, it's that you can never understate the importance of having two capable goaltenders.

Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth both shared the top spot at various points, as goaltending was one of the club's strengths.
 
Without strong performances from both, Dave Hakstol's team never would have made the playoffs.

Among the more intriguing questions that will arise in training camp next fall is who wins the starter's job. If the playoffs proved anything, it's not a lock Mason is ordained the starter.
 
Competition in goal made the Flyers better.
 
“To have inner competition is a good thing,” general manager Ron Hextall said after the season. “We've got two good goalies and I think, as we saw this year, it's nice to have.
 
“If we have one of them this year, then we're probably nowhere near the playoffs. They were a strength of ours and I give them both credit for giving us a chance to win those nights.”
 
Neuvirth has made it clear that he sees himself as a No. 1.
 
“Michal Neuvirth's become a better player this year and I think that Michal Neuvirth has a belief that he can be a No. 1, maybe for the first time, maybe when he was younger he did,” Hextall said.
 
“He proved it to himself, he proved it to us, and on the other hand, Mase did the same thing. Mase has played the last month and a half and was terrific. He played a great game and quite honestly, there is no rounds to go, we didn't have another guy to go to.”
 
Hextall feels Anthony Stolarz likely needs one more year of AHL grooming.
 
“Stolie is a good, young prospect, but he's young and he's not ready to take the ball at this level, so Mase took the ball and ran with it,” Hextall said. “We get two guys that I think our team feels very comfortable with and so do I.”
 
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning have both demonstrated during this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs that you can win with a young goalie coming off the bench and stealing the top spot with a strong run.
 
He’s a recap of the goaltenders - not including Stolarz, who was on the roster for 16 games but did not play:

Steve Mason
Age: 28
Stats: 54 GP; 23-19-10; 2.51 GAA; .918 SV%
Cap hit: $4.1 million
 
Mason played his 400th career game in March. Despite a terrible start that had more to do with a serious personal matter off the ice, Mason was the Flyers' late-season MVP, starting 12 consecutive games down the stretch and enabling the Flyers to erase a three-point gap and claim the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

After a stellar showing in the season-opener in Tampa, Mason's off-ice issue hit full brunt. His focus was gone the remainder of October and it showed with a 3.39 goals-against average heading into November. More bad luck came as he got the flu and missed a series of games before returning as the Flyers struggled through a series of overtimes and shootouts during which Mason came up small.

While Mason has shown he can make a critical save on a breakaway during games, he seems to make himself small in net during shootouts, during which he was 2-6 this season.

True, you can argue the Flyers have lacked for goal-scoring in the shootout for years now. Yet, the point is, Mason's confidence in shootouts is poor.

A knee injury bothered him in the start of the second half, as he lost his job to Neuvirth, who kept the Flyers afloat. Mason's return to full health began in March.

Mason finally hit .500 — 15-15-7 — with a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay on March 7. His sprint to the finish began March 19 and he went 6-4-2 to help push the Flyers into the playoffs.

In Game 1 against Washington, Mason played well, but he was terrible the next two games in which he allowed 10 goals, three of which were horrific, and then lost the net to Neuvirth as the Flyers faced a 3-0 deficit.

His playoff goals-against average of 4.09 and .852 save percentage were proof of his poor play. Puzzling stat: His save percentage when the Flyers were on the power play this season was just .878 after being .958 the year before when he faced more shots against.

Mason continues to mystify as to whether he has the mental toughness to overcome adversity. While he proven his value in the regular season, until he shows he can carry this team deep into the playoffs on his own, there will forever be a question as to whether he's capable of winning a Stanley Cup.
 
Michal Neuvirth
Age: 28
Stats: 32 GP; 18-8-4; 2.27 GAA; .924 SV%
Cap hit: $1.625 million

Where would the Flyers have been this season without Neuvirth, especially at the start?

You could make a compelling argument Neuvirth was the club's first-half MVP while Mason struggled. Neuvirth was 11-6-2 at the All-Star break compared to Mason's 10-12-6.

Bang vs. buck. He's a steal at $1.625 million. The only knock on Neuvirth, which has dogged him throughout his nine-year career, is his health. He has an uncanny way of getting hit with freak injuries and admits it's held him back.

In all, he had six different injuries that caused him to miss 18 games — almost a quarter of the season. Yet despite late-season knee surgery, which forced him to miss eight games, Neuvirth came on strong in replacing Mason for Games 4 through 6 in the postseason.

Neuvirth clearly showed he was far more on top of his game than Mason, winning two of three, one of which he faced 44 shots and earned a brilliant 2-0 shutout. Neuvirth has played half as many games as Mason in his career yet he has a chance in camp to get that coveted starter's job back, which he once briefly held in Washington.

Neuvirth's 2.27 goals-against average and .924 save percentage during the regular season were career bests. Interestingly, this is a contract year for both Neuvirth and Mason to show their value for that next deal.

In Neuvirth's case, it's about getting starter's money — not back-up. That said, even if this shy Czech becomes the Flyers' starter, his penchant for injury dictates wariness over the long haul.

Best of MLB: Stephen Strasburg stays unbeaten as Nats pound Cards

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Best of MLB: Stephen Strasburg stays unbeaten as Nats pound Cards

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg (9-0) won his 12th consecutive decision dating to last season, pitching six innings of one-run ball as Washington salvaged a four-game split.

Strasburg improved to 12-0 in 15 starts since losing to the Mets on Sept. 9, and the Nationals have won all 15 of those games. The 12 consecutive winning decisions is a franchise record for a starter, breaking a mark shared by Livan Hernandez (2005) and Dennis Martinez (1989).

Jayson Werth connected for a pinch-hit grand slam. Wilson Ramos had three hits, including a two-run homer, and drove in four runs. Bryce Harper hit an RBI single during a three-run fourth off Michael Wacha (2-6), who lost his sixth straight decision (see full recap).

Dodgers score twice in 9th to top Mets
NEW YORK -- Adrian Gonzalez snapped a ninth-inning tie with a two-run single off suddenly struggling closer Jeurys Familia, and Los Angeles beat New York.

Curtis Granderson hit a tying triple for the Mets immediately after Clayton Kershaw was lifted with two outs in the eighth. But the Dodgers quickly regrouped for their sixth victory in seven games since losing four straight.

Kershaw struck out 10, walked none and capped a magnificent May with another sublime performance.

Adam Liberatore (1-0) got the win. Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his 15th save.

Familia (2-1) allowed two runs on two hits and two walks (see full recap).

Castro's homer Yanks' only hit in victory
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Starlin Castro's two-run, seventh-inning homer off Jake Odorizzi was the Yankees' only hit of the game, enough to give New York a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday.

According to Baseball Reference data going back to 1913, the Yankees' only other one-hit win was when Charlie Mullen had an RBI single to beat Cleveland in six innings in a doubleheader nightcap on July 10, 1914.

Nathan Eovaldi (6-2) gave up one run and six hits in six innings to win his career-best fifth consecutive start and beat Odorizzi (2-3).

Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman each pitched a perfect inning and combined for seven strikeouts. Chapman got his seventh save (see full recap).

Deitrich hurt on odd play in Marlins' win over Braves
ATLANTA -- Derek Dietrich hit a tiebreaking, two-run homer and drove in four runs before getting hurt on a foul ball hit into Miami's dugout.

Dietrich's homer landed deep in the lower section of the right-field seats in the sixth, giving Miami a 3-1 lead. A former Georgia Tech star, Dietrich added a two-run double off Eric O'Flaherty in the seventh inning, then was hit by a foul ball off the bat of Christian Yelich in the ninth.

The team said X-rays were negative and Dietrich was to remain in Atlanta on Sunday night for further evaluations.

Tom Koehler (3-5) allowed three runs -- two earned -- three hits and five walks in seven-plus innings. Julio Teheran (1-5) gave up three runs, five hits and three walks in 5 1/3 innings (see full recap).

Correa's home run lifts Astros over Angels in 13
ANAHEIM, Calif.  -- Pinch-hitter Carlos Correa had a three-run homer off Mike Morin (1-1) in the 13th inning.

Correa got a run-scoring hit in the 13th inning for the second time in six games, following up his game-ending single against Baltimore on Tuesday.

Albert Pujols had three hits for the Angels, who blew an eighth-inning lead and stranded 14 runners while losing for the fourth time in five games.

Michael Feliz (3-1) pitched the 12th for Houston (see full recap).