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.

Cubs reward Theo Epstein for turnaround with 5-year extension

Cubs reward Theo Epstein for turnaround with 5-year extension

CHICAGO -- Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts had dinner with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein in Arizona around the start of spring training.

If Epstein had any doubt about a contract extension, it ended right there. And on Wednesday, it became official.

Chicago announced a five-year extension, rewarding Epstein for an overhaul that has the long-suffering franchise eyeing its first championship since 1908.

"He started it off by saying some really nice things about me that might have hurt his leverage a little bit, and then I returned the favor by telling him that even if we couldn't work out a contract it would get awkward because I would just keep showing up to work," Epstein said. "As an employee, I will. I kept ruining my leverage."

The deal comes with the Cubs wrapping up one of the greatest seasons in franchise history and their fans believing this just might be the team to end the 108-year World Series title drought.

Chicago reached 100 wins for the first time since 1935 and was a major league-leading 101-56 heading into Wednesday's game at Pittsburgh. The Cubs clinched the best record in the majors with more than a week left in the regular season.

"In the five years under Theo's leadership, he has brought in a strong executive team and acquired and developed some of the best players in the game," Ricketts said. "Now, the results are on the field."

Terms were not disclosed.

It looks like Epstein isn't the only Cubs executive with a new deal. He said contract extensions for general manager Jed Hoyer and senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod will probably be announced in the next day or two.

Epstein, who was in the final season of a five-year deal when he left Boston in October 2011, had repeatedly said a new contract was a formality, that there were more immediate priorities. Ricketts had echoed that and indicated in the spring that he was prepared to make him one of the highest-paid executives in baseball.

"There was never any real drama throughout the summer," said Ricketts, adding the agreement was finalized a few days ago.

What took so long?

"We sat down at spring training, had a nice dinner, talked about getting an extension done," Ricketts said. "Basically, I told him I thought he was the best in the game at what he did. He told me no matter what I paid him he wasn't going to leave Chicago, so we were off to a good start. We checked back in on it a couple times during the summer. There was no real time pressure."

The new deal is a reward for a striking transformation that began with the arrivals of Epstein along with Hoyer and McLeod -- his friends from Boston -- following the 2011 season.

The Cubs tested some fans' patience by taking the long approach rather than going for a quick fix, but they have seen the benefits the past two years. Chicago is eyeing even bigger things after breaking out with 97 wins and reaching the NL Championship Series last season.

"When you have great leadership at the top, it usually filters through the rest of the group," manager Joe Maddon said. "A successful organization has that. We have that. I was very happy to hear the news. I'm very happy for Theo and his family and of course, us. It is great. It's a feel-good story. He deserves it. He's earned it. I'm very happy for him."

High draft picks such as 2015 NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant made big impacts, as did a number of trade acquisitions, including last season's NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo and potential Gold Glove shortstop Addison Russell.

The hiring of NL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon and signing of starter Jon Lester before the 2015 season showed just how serious the Cubs were about jumping into contention. And the additions of three-time Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, pitcher John Lackey and veteran infielder Ben Zobrist along with the re-signing of outfielder Dexter Fowler this past offseason added to an already deep roster.

Throw in the emergence of Kyle Hendricks as a Cy Young candidate, and the Cubs are widely considered a postseason favorite.

There were missteps along the way, but the Cubs are in a far different and far better place than they were five years ago. And if they win it all under Epstein, it won't be the first time he helped end a long championship drought.

Before he took aim at the Billy goat curse, he took down the Bambino.

Epstein oversaw two World Series winners in nine seasons as Boston's general manager.

In Chicago, Epstein parted with high-priced veterans and loaded up the minor league system while expanding the team's scouting and analytics operation as part of an overhaul that saw the organization get stripped to its studs.

The Ricketts family also invested heavily in infrastructure in recent years, including new training facilities in the baseball-rich Dominican Republic and the spring training home in Arizona. They are also overhauling Wrigley Field and the surrounding neighborhood.

"There really wasn't anything important to me besides finding common ground, making sure that we could stay and see this thing through," Epstein said. "Our mission has not been accomplished yet."

Roman Quinn likely done for season; Aaron Nola is throwing in Fla.

Roman Quinn likely done for season; Aaron Nola is throwing in Fla.

ATLANTA – Roman Quinn spent Wednesday getting treatment on his freshly strained left oblique. The rookie outfielder will try to gauge his condition by doing some jogging and light throwing on Thursday, but all signs point to his being shut down for the remaining days of the season and continuing his bid to make the opening day 2017 roster in spring training.

“He’ll let me know tomorrow and be honest with me if he still feels it,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. "There’s no sense in him getting hurt with only four or five games left in the season.”

Quinn injured himself taking a swing in the fifth inning Tuesday. He blew out the same oblique at Double A Reading this summer and missed six weeks.

“I think he’s more scared than anything that it’s going to recur and he’s going to make it worse,” Mackanin said.

That should be enough to shut down Quinn right there.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Quinn said.

Quinn was 15 for 57 (.263) with four doubles, six RBIs, eight walks and five stolen bases in 15 games before going down. He struck out 19 times but had a .373 on-base percentage on a team that struggles to get on base.

Mackanin sees Quinn as a player who could make the jump to full-time duty in the Phillies’ outfield as soon as April, but first Quinn must clear the injury hurdle that has cost him so much time since he was picked in the second round of the 2011 draft. Quinn has missed time with a ruptured Achilles tendon, a torn quad muscle, a broken wrist and oblique issues.

“He mentioned to me that because he’s so lean and doesn’t have a lot of body fat that might be part of the issue,” said Mackanin, referring to Quinn’s oblique issues. “They have so much health food available for the players that this could be a good way to make a change, so we can have a pizza and a burger once in a while.”

Mackanin got serious.

“With him, his big question mark is staying on the field,” the manager said. “That’s always going to be in the back of everybody’s mind because he doesn’t seem to stay on the field as much as you’d like him to. Resilience and reliability are important. So that’s going to be a big test for him next year. It’s obvious what he brings to the table as far as making things happen. He’s a catalyst for a lot of things, the least of which is coverage in the outfield, so it’s a matter of whether he can stay on the field or not.”

In other health matters ...
Reliever Edubray Ramos has a sore elbow and is day to day, and day to day at this time of the year might mean he’s done for the season. Mackanin said the elbow issue is not serious and could be a result of Ramos' pitching longer than he ever has in a season.

Also, Aaron Nola has begun to test his ailing elbow by throwing on flat ground in Florida. He will progress to a mound and eventually face hitters in the coming weeks as the club gauges whether he is fully recovered from his elbow strain or will require surgery that could cost him the 2017 season.