How the Sixers Swept a Three-Game Road Trip and Turned Their Young Season Around

How the Sixers Swept a Three-Game Road Trip and Turned Their Young Season Around

OK, so maybe it's way too early to talk about any kind of season
"turnaround" with the Philadelphia 76ers. But after the Sixers got
smashed in a home-and-home by the Atlantic Division rival New York
Knicks with a combined 36-point margin of loss, it did quash a good deal
of the enthusiasm surrounding this team in the off-season, and
demonstrated that maybe the Sixers missed Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams
and Elton Brand more than we had previously expected they would—and that
maybe they needed Andrew Bynum's return to the lineup a little more
desperately, too.


But now here we are a week and three road games later, and things
are looking a whole lot sunnier. The Sixers grinded (ground?) out a
77-62 win in New Orleans on Wednesday, outplayed the division-favorite
Celtics to the tune of 106-100 on Friday, and then held off the Raptors
93-83 in Toronto. Now the Liberty Ballers sit at 4-2 on the season,
fourth in the East and behind only the Knicks in the Atlantic, with five
very winnable home games (against the Bucks, Pistons, Jazz, Cavaliers
and Raptors) coming up on their schedule. The dread is gone, and the
Sixers appear to be back where they were at the beginning of last year—a
very solid unit that beats up on lesser teams and gets clobbered by the
league's elite.


How did we get back here? Well, let's look at the five biggest factors that keyed the three-game surge:

1. Jrue's aggressiveness. Michael Levin of Liberty Ballers had an excellent post about this yesterday (given the appropriately exaggerated title "The Jrue Holiday Revolution"),
which can simply be summarized that Jrue is being a lot more assertive
with his play and decision-making, with predominantly excellent results.
Mike breaks down how Jrue is getting to the rim more and converting
more once there, shooting and making more threes, doubling his assist
rate and drawing more fouls—all without sacrificing any of his excellent
numbers in man defense. If you were looking for a team MVP throughout
the three-game win streak—or the entirety of the six-game season—it
would unquestionably be The Damaja.


It's worth pointing out that as much as the team's decisions to
trade Iguodala and let Sweet Lou walk in the off-season were about
clearing cap space and bringing in players like Andrew Bynum and Nick
Young, the real reason why we at the 700 Level believed it was
imperative to cut ties with those two guys was so we could finally let
our young guys, Jrue especially, take the reins with the team and see
what they could do with them. Based on his play so far, not only does
that appear to have been the right move for the team's future, but the
four-year, $41 million deal he signed after the season opener seems like
it could be a real bargain. If he can keep up this level of play, and
especially if he can cut down his sky-high turnover rate (5.6 a game, on
pace to break the all-time record), expect Holiday's name to be
mentioned in All-Star consideration.


2. Evan's rebounding (and freebie shooting). The
Extraterrestrial has been typically erratic on offense so far this year,
shooting a combined 7-25 through the team's first three games, then
matching those seven field goals in one game in New Orleans and
exploding for a team-high 25 against the Celtics. What has been
consistent with Evan Turner has been his spectacular rebounding,
particularly on the defensive end. His rebound totals for the six games
so far this season are 6, 11, 9, 8, 11 and 12, leading the team three
times and pacing the squad with his overall average of 9.5 a game. In
fact, his 8.2 defensive rebounds a game currently rate as seventh in the entire league.


This would be impressive for anyone, naturally, but coming from a
player like Turner, it's absolutely stunning. Only a handful of players
post rebounding numbers like that from a wing position (and none of them
do from the 2, which Evan has been playing with Jason Richardson out),
and those that do are typically athletic freaks like LeBron James or
sneaky-tall "small forwards" like Kevin Durant and Paul George. Evan is
listed at 6'7", and isn't particularly athletic or physically imposing
for his size, but he just has an incredible nose (and an irrepressible
motor) for rebounding, and given the minutes to do so, he's a threat to
pull down double-digits basically every night. So even on nights when
his shot isn't falling—which is probably gonna happen more often than
we'd like—E.T. is still gonna contribute with his rebounding, at the
very least.


Also worth monitoring with Evan so far this season: His free-throw
shooting. Turner was rather subpar for a wing player from the free-throw
line last year, shooting just 67.6% from the stripe, lower than just
about every frontcourt player the team had. The only reason he didn't
take more flak for his lousy line performance was that he barely ever
got there, averaging just over two attempts per 36 minutes. This season,
not only is Evan getting to the line more—up to 4.2 attempts per
36—he's converting at a beastly 87.5% clip once there, a team-best,
including going 15-15 to start the season.


Turner's charity-stripe excellence has been rewarded by Coach
Collins, as Collins now allows Turner to shoot the team's technical-foul
shots, even with Holiday (a career 80% from the line) and Nick Young
(career 83%) on the floor. Whether the improved free-throw shooting is a
result of off-season practice or simply increased confidence (no doubt
helped by the trust Collins now shows in him) is unclear, but both
trends will be important towards increasing Turner's offensive
efficiency this season—tellingly, even though he's shooting a career-low
37.9% from the field this season, his PER is also at a career-best
13.8.


3. Nick Young and Dorell Wright's reacquired swag. It's hard
to put into words just how bad Nick Young was on offense throughout the
team's first four games—though one number, a PER of 0.2, certainly gets
us at least part of the way there. Young just wasn't hitting from
anywhere in any situation, and as a player who doesn't fill out many
non-shooting columns in the box score, all we could do was hope that his
shooting being this streaky in one direction would eventually be
balanced by it being equally streaky in the other direction. Swagy P
hasn't been quite as good in the last two games as he was bad in the
first four, but he's getting closer, going a combined 11-21 and 3-7 from
deep, providing the bench scoring from the perimeter the team so
desperately needed.


Meanwhile, Dorell Wright wasn't quite so miserable in the team's
first four games, but he certainly wasn't all that good. Along with the
soon-injured Jason Richardson, we went into this season relying on
Wright to provide the three-point shooting that was to be a crucial
element of this team's offensive attack, but through the first four he
was shooting just 7-27 from deep, a lousy 26% clip. He's regained the
stroke in the last two, though, shooting a combined 6-11, including four
triples last night that helped amend for off nights on offense from
Jrue and Evan.


In fact, last night's game was a great all-around demonstration of
the second-unit boost Nick and Dorell can give this team—not just on
offense, but on defense, where the two helped lock down Toronto's
perimeter game, and helped hold the Raptors to just seven points in the
second quarter, getting the Sixers out to a 20-point lead that the
Raptors were able to cut into but could never quite overcome. Both
players might be streaky and inconsistent throughout the season, but
it's just good to see that the potential for both to be real
contributors is definitely there.


4. Thaddeus Young's consistency. Look at these game-by-game-numbers for Thad so far:

Vs. DEN: 13 points on 6-12 shooting, 5 rebounds
Vs. NYK: 16 points on 7-14 shooting, 6 rebounds
Vs. NYK: 14 points on 7-12 shooting, 10 rebounds

Vs. NOR: 12 points on 6-8 shooting, 10 rebounds
Vs. BOS: 15 points on 7-13 shooting, 5 rebounds
Vs. TOR: 16 points on 5-11 shooting, 8 rebounds

You
getting the general idea yet? On a team seemingly stocked entirely with
feast-or-famine-type players, Thaddeus Young has been an absolute rock
for this team, similar to how Elton Brand was as the team's starting
power forward back in '10-'11. You know nearly exactly what you're gonna
get with Thad every night—he's gonna score between 12-18 points on
around 50% shooting, and grab you 5-10 rebounds. He'll miss at least one
bunny and he'll get screwed out of at least one whistle, but he'll also
get you a steal or two, make a smart interior pass or two, and he won't
turn the ball over much.


It seems unlikely at this point that Thaddeus is ever gonna develop
into a star, like we hoped he might when he signed his five-year, $42
million contract a couple off-seasons ago, but if he keeps giving us
that kind of night-in, night-out production (and doesn't get matched up
with Carmelo Anthony too often on the other end), he'll be a legit
starter in this league for a long time.


5. Royal Ivey's...Royal Iveyness. All right, so the
Cheesburger probably won't end up playing a big part in this season or
any general part of Philadelphia 76ers history, but you gotta respect
Royal's contributions through four games as the team's primary backup
point guard. He's not doing too much—making smart reads, playing good
defense and hitting open shots, absolutely none of which were being done
by our backup point to start the season, Malik Wayns, still yet to
register a point this season.


I wouldn't be surprised if Wayns figures it out a little bit and
ends up taking the backup PG slot back from Ivey before season's end,
but for now, all we really need is Ivey to be solid enough to spell Jrue
for a handful of minutes a half and and give them another playmaking
option in the back court. He's more than done that so far, especially
with his eight points, five assists and zero turnovers against the
Raptors last night. Good looking out, Royal.


Honorable mention to Spencer Hawes and his 10 points and
eight boards a game off the bench over the three-game stretch, and to
the team's overall defense, which held the Hornets to a franchise-low 62
points on Wednesday and has the second-lowest opponents points-per-game
average in the league (88.7) thusfar.

Best of MLB: Bryant homers twice, Cubs spoil Ruiz's Dodgers debut

Best of MLB: Bryant homers twice, Cubs spoil Ruiz's Dodgers debut

LOS ANGELES -- Kris Bryant hit a tiebreaking two-run homer in the 10th inning to go with an earlier solo shot, lifting the Chicago Cubs over the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-4 on Friday night in the series opener between NL division leaders.

Bryant's 35th homer capped a comeback from an earlier two-run deficit and extended the Cubs' winning streak to four games. Chicago fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" as Bryant scored behind Dexter Fowler, who singled leading off.

Chicago improved to 19-4 in August while earning its major league-leading 82nd victory.

Travis Wood (4-0) got the victory with one inning of relief. Aroldis Chapman struck out two in the 10th to earn his 10th save.

Adam Liberatore (2-1) took the loss, allowing two runs and four hits in one inning (see full recap).

Mariners overcome Sale's 14 K's to beat White Sox
CHICAGO -- Chris Sale struck out 14 but got outpitched by Felix Hernandez and the Seattle bullpen, and the Mariners ended a three-game skid Friday night by beating the Chicago White Sox 3-1.

Hernandez (9-4) improved to 5-0 in eight starts since returning from the disabled list, throwing 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball.

Sale (15-7) gave up five hits and walked none in his fifth complete game of the season. He retired the final 16 batters, striking out 10 of them.

Sale struck out six straight in the sixth and seventh innings, one shy of Joe Cowley's team record.

Franklin Gutierrez hit a solo home run and Adam Lind added an RBI double off Sale.

Todd Frazier's 32nd home run in the seventh was one of eight hits off Hernandez until he left with the bases loaded (see full recap).

Gonzalez earns 100th win as Nationals top Rockies
WASHINGTON -- Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy hit solo homers and drove in two runs each, and Gio Gonzalez earned his 100th career victory as the Washington Nationals beat the Colorado Rockies 8-5 on Friday night.

Gonzalez (9-9) threw six innings and allowed two runs and four hits with one walk and five strikeouts.

Mark Melancon retired Christhian Adames for the final out. Melancon entered the game shortly after Nick Hundley hit a three-run homer off Shawn Kelley to pull the Rockies within three.

While Gonzalez hit the century mark, Rockies rookie Jeff Hoffman (0-2), remains in search of his first major league win (see full recap).

Best of NFL: Tom Brady on target, leads Patriots to win in preseason debut

Best of NFL: Tom Brady on target, leads Patriots to win in preseason debut

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tom Brady looked sharp in his preseason debut, throwing a 33-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan in helping the New England Patriots to a 19-17 preseason win over the Carolina Panthers on Friday night.

Brady relieved Jimmy Garoppolo late in the first quarter and completed a 37-yard pass to Aaron Dobson on his first play from scrimmage, leading to a field goal. On his second drive Brady heaved a perfectly placed over-the-shoulder pass to Hogan down the right sideline for a 9-0 lead. Brady's other two drives failed to produce points.

While Brady was on the mark, league MVP Cam Newton struggled mightily in his most extensive playing time of the preseason. Newton was intercepted twice and the Panthers failed to get any points on his eight first-half possessions. Overall, the Panthers scored just three points in 10 Newton-led drives.

The sixth-year quarterback was high on some passes and didn't get much help from his receivers, who had problems getting separation and dropped four passes, including one by Brenton Bersin on a fourth-and-2 at midfield.

New England's defense shut down the league's highest-scoring offense from a year ago. They also intercepted Derek Anderson and allowed only one passing play of more than 15 yards in the first half.

Garoppolo, expected to start the first four games for the Patriots while Brady serves a suspension for his role in "Deflategate," returned in the second quarter but couldn't get anything going.

In the third quarter he rolled out of the pocket while under pressure and missed an open receiver who'd gotten behind the defense. His six drives resulted in no points, although Stephen Gostkowski missed a 30-yard field goal on the New England's opening possession (see full recap).

Redskins overcome slow start to beat Bills
LANDOVER, Md. -- Kirk Cousins found a groove and undrafted rookie running back Robert Kelley made the most of his chance and the Washington Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills 21-16 Friday night in the third preseason game.

With the Bills (1-2) resting almost their entire starting defense, Cousins overcame a rough start to finish 12 of 23 for 188 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

Despite coming mostly against Buffalo's second- and third-stringers, it was an important recovery for Cousins, who had thrown only five passes in the preseason and didn't play last week in an effort to test backup Colt McCoy.

Kelley ran for 51 yards on 12 carries in a personal showcase with Matt Jones and Chris Thompson out and after seventh-round pick Keith Marshall sprained his left elbow on his only carry of the game.

Bills starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor played only two series, by coach Rex Ryan's design, going 2 of 5 for 11 yards before being replaced by E.J. Manuel.

Ryan also opted to rest running back LeSean McCoy and several key defenders, including defensive tackle Kyle Williams, linebacker Jerry Hughes and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore.

Coach Jay Gruden took a more conventional dress-rehearsal approach to the third preseason game for the Redskins (2-1) and got the kind of performances he'd like to see from top players such as tight end Jordan Reed, receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, left tackle Trent Williams and cornerback Josh Norman.

Reed, Garcon and receiver Ryan Grant each caught a touchdown pass from Cousins, and Norman looked sharp on defense along with second-year linebacker Preston Smith and lineman Ziggy Hood (see full recap).

Roethlisberger shreds defense in Steelers' win over Saints
NEW ORLEANS -- Ben Roethlisberger torched New Orleans' defense for 148 yards and two touchdown passes on his first two series of this preseason, then got the rest of the game off while the Steelers rolled to a 27-14 victory over the Saints on Friday night.

Roethlisberger, who sat out of the first two preseason games, opened by leading a 14-play, 76-yard drive on which he converted two third downs and found tight end Jesse James for a 5-yard score. His next series was highlighted by his 57-yard scoring pass down the left sideline to Antonio Brown, also playing for the first time this preseason. The Steelers star finished with 12 completions on 17 attempts.

Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell also made his preseason debut, gaining 21 yards on three carries, but his lost fumble in the second quarter -- forced by cornerback Delvin Breaux and recovered by linebacker Dannell Ellerbe -- led to Drew Brees' only TD pass. Brees' strike went to Willie Snead, who made a difficult juggling catch as he landed on his back following a collision near the back of the end zone.

Brees had a difficult night behind a struggling offensive line. It didn't help that starting left tackle Terron Armstead left the field unexpectedly in the first half for undisclosed reasons. Brees completed 9 of 12 passes, but for only 78 yards. One of his better throws connected with newly acquired tight end Coby Fleener for 26 yards, but it was called back for holding on Armstead.

The Saints have dropped all three preseason games.

Steelers backup Landry Jones went 19 of 22 for 206 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates. He also completed a 58-yard pass to Coates to set up Chris Boswell's 40-yard field goal (see full recap).

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — The New York Mets set the tone for this game early on Friday night. Their first two batters stroked Adam Morgan fastballs over the wall and they were off and slugging to a 9-4 win over the Phillies at Citi Field (see Instant Replay).
 
“There’s not much to say,” manager Pete Mackanin said afterward, “other than we have to pitch better.”
 
The Mets, very much in the thick of the NL wild-card race, played inspired ball in powering their way to their fifth win in the last six games. They hit four home runs on the night, including three against Morgan, and got a typically strong start from Bartolo Colon.
 
“It’s never good when you start a game by giving up two home runs,” Morgan said. “If I make better pitches, it’s a different outcome.”
 
The third home run that Morgan gave up was the killer. It was a grand slam by Wilmer Flores with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. That turned a 2-1 Mets’ lead into a 6-1 Mets’ lead.
 
Flores’ grand slam came on a first-pitch slider. Morgan threw nine pitches before walking Neil Walker, the previous batter, to extend the inning. One of those pitches was a foul pop down the right-field line that Ryan Howard could not chase down. Had he been able to make the tough play, Morgan would have gotten out of the inning unscathed.
 
Then again, the pitcher could have gotten out of the inning unscathed if he did not give up the two-out walk to Walker.
 
Or make a mistake with the first-pitch slider to Flores.
 
“It was a bad pitch,” Mackanin said. “He tried to backdoor a slider and it ended up in his wheelhouse.”
 
As for the pop-up down the right-field line …
 
“I was hoping somebody could run that down,” Mackanin said. “Nevertheless, you’ve got to pitch around those things and make good pitches. That mistake to Flores put it away for them. Morgan had command issues. Too many pitches out over the plate.”
 
In all, Morgan allowed eight hits, including five for extra bases, in his five innings of work. He dropped to 1-8 and his ERA rose to 6.50.
 
Reliever Frank Herrmann gave up the Mets’ fourth homer, a two-run shot to Asdrubal Cabrera in the sixth. Cabrera homered from both sides of the plate.
 
Meanwhile, Colon, the Mets’ 43-year-old control artist, did what he often does to the Phillies. He gave up just three hits and a run through seven innings before hitting the wall and giving up three runs without getting an out in the eighth. Colon had to settle for seven-plus innings of four-run ball. He is 12-7 with a 3.44 ERA. He is 9-3 with a 2.98 ERA against the Phillies as a member of the Mets.
 
“He seems to own us,” Mackanin said. “We can’t seem to square up the ball against him. He does a tremendous job with control and command.”
 
Peter Bourjos concurred.
 
“He’s different than any pitcher you see these days,” Bourjos said. “You don’t see many guys throwing mostly fastballs at 88 mph and sinking it. You see some guys throwing a majority of sinkers, but it’s 95. This guy changes speeds on his fastball and locates it so well.”
 
The game marked the Phillies’ first without Carlos Ruiz, who was traded to the Dodgers on Thursday. Jorge Alfaro came up from Double A and served as the backup catcher. He is expected to return to the Reading club on Saturday when A.J. Ellis arrives. The Phillies picked up the veteran backup catcher in the trade.
 
Alfaro did not play, but called the experience of coming to the majors “a dream.”
 
That was the only thing that resembled a dream for the Phillies on Friday night.
 
They have lost 20 of 29 games to the Mets over the last two seasons and 12 of their last 16 in Citi Field, hardly encouraging with two more games to play in the series.