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.

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

NEW YORK — Phillies players were greeted by a message from Carlos Ruiz when they entered the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field on Friday.

“I will miss all of you guys. Good luck the rest of the season. Love you all, Chooch! Gracias,” (see story).

Ruiz did not actually write those words on the whiteboard by the entry to the clubhouse, but they were his. He reached out to visiting clubhouse manager Tony Carullo and asked that the message be written in just that way.

Ruiz, 37, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday, ending an 11-season run with the Phillies that included five NL East titles, a World Series championship, an All-Star Game, a slew of clutch hits, many words of praise from the pitching staff and a million calls of Choooooch from fans in the stands (see story).

“Everybody loved Chooch for a number of reasons,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He’s the kind of guy you loved seeing every day, a hard-working, humble and appealing human being.

“I’d like to think when he’s done playing, the Phillies might have a place for him.”

Mackanin paused and laughed.

“As long as they don’t make him manager and he takes my job.”

Ruiz’s exit leaves Ryan Howard as the only member of the 2008 World Series championship team still with the club. Over the last few seasons, Howard has seen Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Chase Utley depart.

It’s a topic that Howard seems to have grown weary of talking about.

“I've had to hear about it every year,” he said. “It's again the same thing. You play with guys your entire career and now you see them in different uniforms. It's definitely going to be something to get used to but that's baseball. That's the business aspect of it. Teams make moves and that's what happens.”

Like the rest of the core of that team, Howard, 36, has been available for trade the last few seasons, but there has been no real interest because of his decline in performance and huge salary.

So he will play out the final six weeks of his contract and try to hook on elsewhere next season.

Howard saluted his former teammate, Ruiz.

“I'm trying to think of the right words,” he said.

“The thing about Chooch — he was the quarterback in a sense. The way he handled the pitching staff, the way he prepared himself for games with the pitchers, from the defensive standpoint knowing different situations, knowing what guy you want to beat you, what guy you don't want to beat you. Just the way he played the game, he was a fireball. He was a fireball out there. I'm definitely going to miss him. I hit him up yesterday a little bit after I found out. I was happy for him and wanted to wish him the best.

“Chooch, he was always very, very positive. Always trying to help guys out, trying to pick guys up when he can and it carried over onto the field. That was his mentality.”

The Phillies acquired veteran backup catcher A.J. Ellis, minor-league pitcher Tommy Bergjans and a player to be named later for Ruiz (see story). Ellis is due to join the team Saturday. In the meantime, the Phillies added prospect Jorge Alfaro from Double A (see story). He will be the backup catcher Friday night, then return to a talent-rich Reading club that has the best record in minor-league baseball and a date with the Eastern League playoffs.

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews is probably the only Eagles wide receiver you feel remotely good about right now.

Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff are draft picks who haven’t accomplished much yet. Rueben Randle and Chris Givens are veteran offseason pickups who’ve shown little this preseason (see story). Dorial Green-Beckham is a former second-round pick whose first team gave up on him after just one year.

It’s not a group that inspires a whole lot of confidence right now. 

Potential? Sure. But opening day is 16 days away, there’s only one preseason game left for the starters to play, Sam Bradford has two guys to throw to — Matthews and Zach Ertz — and potential is a scary word at this point.

Matthews isn’t a superstar at this point. He’s a solid pro who seems to be getting better. His 1,862 yards are 10th most in NFL history after two seasons. 

But compared to the Eagles’ other receivers, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He's got credibility and because of that the 24-year-old Matthews has become a spokesman for the entire group. And this past week, two games into the preseason, he found himself in the position of having to defend this entire beleaguered bunch of wide receivers the Eagles have put together.

“The funniest thing is last year [the receivers] played extremely well in the preseason, got into the season, didn’t play well, and everybody’s like, 'Preseason doesn’t matter,'" Matthews said.

"Then the first preseason game we don’t play well, everybody’s like, 'The preseason matters, you guys suck!' Hold on … I thought it didn’t matter. You know what I’m saying?”

What he's saying is it's too early to write this group off. Maybe Huff and Agholor and Randle and Givens — or whichever among them makes the team — will turn it on once the regular season begins.

But going into the Colts game Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium, the numbers are not pretty.

Huff and Randle both have three catches for 13 yards. Agholor has two catches for 30 yards. Givens is 0 for 0.

Matthews hasn’t played yet in the preseason because of a knee injury, and the next four receivers have a combined 56 receiving yards in two preseason games.

Paul Turner, an undrafted rookie, leads the group with nine catches for 78 yards. 

Improvement? Matthews sees it.

“I take this approach,” Matthews said this week. “Every rep counts. And so if every rep counts, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to do better the next rep, and I felt like guys took steps forward for the next rep. And that’s the main thing you always want to see, that improvement.

“I understand it’s the NFL, I understand obviously people are going to say you get paid a lot of money to do one thing, but I’ll tell you what, I know the guys in that room, they want to do well. None of those guys went into that game wanting to mess up or not put their best foot forward.”

Probably no recent draft pick has infuriated Eagles fans as much as Agholor. Well, other than maybe Marcus Smith and Danny Watkins. And Lane Johnson maybe.

But it’s tough for some to be patient with Agholor when Jeremy Maclin had 773 yards as a rookie, DeSean Jackson had 912 and Matthews had 872.

Heck, even Reggie Brown (571 yards) and undrafted Hank Baskett (464) were factors as rookie wideouts.

Agholor’s 283 yards last season rank tied for 27th out of 32 wide receivers drafted in the first round over the past 10 years.

But he has a big-time supporter in Matthews.

“I felt like the jump he made from the first game to the second game [was significant]," Matthews said "Even the stuff you don’t see. Blocking? [Darren] Sproles caught a short pass and Nelson turned his route around … he ran a great route, got open, turned around, blocked and probably sprung Sproles for another 10, 15 yards.

“He had another bubble situation where he had to block for Josh and he did. Definitely better than the first game, and that’s what you want to see. That’s the biggest thing. And it gets lost in the shuffle.”

That Sproles play, a 21-yard gain, was called back because of a penalty on rookie guard Isaac Seumalo.

But Matthews is passionate when he talks about how Agholor’s lack of production as a rookie doesn’t mean anything moving forward.

“I don’t know if y’all know this, but I love Jordy Nelson (Packers Pro Bowl receiver),” Matthews said. “I love him. One of my favorite receivers. Jordy Nelson didn’t have 1,000 yards till Year 4.

“Let’s put it in perspective. Guys get better. And I feel like that’s what I want to see from my group. Are guys getting better?

“There’s two things that I really look for from my group — attitude and effort. And do Nelson and Chris and Josh and those guys bring great attitude and effort?

“Yes. That’s what I want to see, and I feel that’s what we’ve shown.”

Soul's Clint Dolezel shares Coach of the Year award with Rattlers' Kevin Guy

Soul's Clint Dolezel shares Coach of the Year award with Rattlers' Kevin Guy

For the third time in five seasons, the Soul and Arizona Rattlers will compete in the ArenaBowl. Prior to Friday night's 7 p.m. matchup, the leaders of both squads, Soul coach Clint Dolezel and Rattlers coach Kevin Guy, were each named Marcum Moss Coach of the Year.

Dolezel and Guy will share the award but not the ArenaBowl trophy, which the Soul haven't won since their lone triumph in 2008 over the San Jose Sabercats. Dolezel, who has been at the helm since August 2012, led the Soul to the ArenaBowl in 2012 and 2013 but lost to the Rattlers on both occasions.

This season, Dolezel, who spent over a decade as a quarterback in the AFL, coached the Soul to a 13-3 regular-season record. The team advanced to the ArenaBowl with a dramatic win in the American Conference championship game over the Jacksonville Sharks.

Dolezel also earned the Coach of the Year award last season for guiding the Soul to a 15-3 overall mark and a conference championship game appearance.

“Without a question, Clint is one of the best offensive minds in AFL history,” Soul majority owner Ron Jaworski said in a press release. “His success is attributed to a great deal of preparation and hard work. To make a playoff appearance every year as a head coach shows his dedication and willingness to win.”