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.

Instant Replay: Celtics 107, Sixers 106

Instant Replay: Celtics 107, Sixers 106

BOX SCORE

Rewind 24 hours.

The Sixers were walking off the court Friday night after a dismal blowout loss to the Magic that left Brett Brown reflecting on Saturday, “Here in Philadelphia, at home, that’s not good enough.”

The Sixers had lacked fire and grit, especially with Joel Embiid on the floor against a sub-.500 Magic team that had played the night before in Memphis. 

They had a day to turn it around. A playoff contending Celtics squad was coming to town and Embiid wasn’t available because of his back-to-back limitations. The shorthanded Sixers (see below) had a tall task ahead of them. 

The Sixers reacted by jumping out early and kept the Celtics at bay in the first half. Even when the Celtics cut their lead to three midway through the second quarter, the Sixers responded with an 8-0 burst to go up by a game-high 11 points. 

The Celtics exposed the Sixers' defensive void in the paint without Embiid in the third. With the Sixers up 65-58, Isaiah Thomas drew a foul against Jahlil Okafor. That play sparked a 9-0 Celtics run over the next two minutes, in which Thomas scored six of those points (including four at the line). The Celtics took back the lead during that stretch and forced the Sixers to play catchup.

The Sixers cut the Celtics lead to one in the fourth with a three from Dario Saric, who played one of his most aggressive games of his short NBA career. After the Celtics jumped back up by seven, the Sixers kept fighting and tied the game 100 apiece. The Celtics were able to pull away and finished with a one-point win, 107-106, after Ersan Ilyasova drained a three at the buzzer. 

Inside the stats
Thomas exploded for 37 points (11 for 19 from the field, 2 for 3 from three, 13 for 15 from the line), four rebounds, and seven assists.

Saric recorded a double-double with 21 points and 12 rebounds off the bench, both tying career-highs. 

Ersan Ilyasova dropped 18 points, including three treys, and six rebounds.

Okafor and Sergio Rodriguez scored 15 apiece, with Rodriguez adding eight assists. 

Avery Bradley dropped 20 points and nine rebounds. 

Stauskas starts in place of Covington
Brown turned to shooting guard Nik Stauskas to slide over to the three spot in place of the injured Robert Covington (see below). 

“Boston’s perimeter defense is as good as it is in the NBA,” Brown explained. “I think you need to have more ball handlers, people who can make a play, on the perimeter … I feel that Nik has that ability to put it to the floor and disrupt that aggressive pressure that the Celtics backcourt can put on you.”

Broken ankles
Saric came up with the Sixers' highlight play of the game when he did this to Jonas Jerebko in the third quarter for an instant highlight reel moment. 

Always a student
Not playing, still learning. Embiid has been praised for being an eager student of the game. During warmups he sat courtside to watch film on a laptop even though he wasn’t suiting up. 

Injury updates
Joel Embiid is not playing in back-to-back games and sat out the back end of this home-home series for rest … Robert Covington sat out with a sprained left knee he suffered on Friday after colliding with T.J. McConnell chasing a ball out of bounds … Jerryd Bayless missed his fourth straight game with left wrist soreness. 

Up next
The Sixers host the Nuggets on Monday night.

Eric Semborski, from Temple club hockey to NHL goalie for a day against Flyers

Eric Semborski, from Temple club hockey to NHL goalie for a day against Flyers

Eric Semborski woke up Saturday and drove to work in Voorhees, New Jersey.

It was just an ordinary morning for the 23-year-old, a Temple graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sports management.

Little did he know, in a couple of hours his world would turn upside down.

Semborski, who works for Snider Hockey and at Flyers Skate Zone running goalie clinics and roller leagues, hadn’t played competitively since suiting up for the Owls’ club team in the spring of 2015.

That was until Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center, where, someway, somehow he was draped in a Chicago Blackhawks jersey and squaring up blazing shots off the sticks of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, just to name a few.

Quite the promotion, huh?

“It’s surreal, really,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”

Could anyone?

“I couldn’t imagine the rush,” Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling said.

Incredibly and astonishingly, Semborski turned into an NHL goaltender for a day as Chicago’s second string to Darling, who suffered a 3-1 loss to the Flyers.

How Semborski was found and summoned by the Blackhawks is still somewhat of a mystery, even to the Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, native himself. Once Chicago received word that regular starter Corey Crawford had to suddenly undergo an appendectomy at a Philadelphia hospital, the Blackhawks started scrambling for an emergency backup to Darling.

“I was at work, at the rink in Voorhees just coaching,” Semborski said. “My boss called me and I missed it. I walked off the ice and started talking with someone from the Flyers, he started asking me, ‘Where’d you play hockey, what’s your playing history?’” 

Semborski was confounded.

“I didn’t even know what he was getting at,” he said. “I asked, ‘Why are you asking me this?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Chicago needs a goalie.’ I just lost it. He said, ‘Go home, get your stuff and if they’re going to use you, they’ll call you.’ I left right away.

“I was like, OK, this probably isn’t going to happen, there’s no way.”

Ten minutes later …

“I’m in the truck and I got a call from Chicago,” Semborski said.

Who was it?

“I just know his name’s Tony,” Semborski said. “That’s all I know.”

How the heck did the Chicago Blackhawks, winners of three Stanley Cups since 2010, find a regular, hard-working guy living in Manayunk to be their reserve netminder?

“No idea,” Semborski said, still in awe talking after the game outside the locker rooms. “I think it had something to do with me working with Snider Hockey, working at Voorhees. They asked around and people just threw my name out I guess. I really don’t know how it happened. I’ll have to get to the bottom of that and thank some people. I have no idea who gave them my info, but whoever did, thank you, because it was awesome.”

So Semborski hustled from Voorhees to Manayunk, packed up his gear — including his old Temple mask, sporting the words “Philly Proud” and “Temple Tuff” — and quickly made his way to the Wells Fargo Center. He arrived around 12:30 p.m. before puck drop at 1.

“I hit some traffic on 76 (Schuylkill Expressway), of course,” Semborski said. “I got here as fast as I could in my street clothes. No time to put on a tie.”

Once Semborski signed his amateur tryout, it became real. He walked into the visiting locker room and there were the Blackhawks and his NHL jersey, a makeshift uniform with Crawford’s No. 50.

“It was hanging up when I got in there,” he said. “I guess they took Crawford’s and threw a name on it and made it work.”

Prior to hitting the ice for warmups, Semborski got acquainted with his teammates.

“Dream come true,” he said. “That was so cool, just hanging out with those guys. They made me feel welcomed right away, started joking around.

“When I got there, they put my number on the board and said I’m throwing in $200 for the holiday party. That was pretty good. I told them, ‘You better take credit because that’s all I got.’”

What about his big-money contract?

“No, I should be paying them for this,” Semborski said. “That was awesome.

“I signed some stuff when I came in, I don’t know what it was. I’m happy with a hat and the memories.”

Especially taking the net in warmups.

“I was a bit rusty, but no matter how much I play, I’m not going to be ready for them,” he said. “It was fast and I couldn’t even catch my breath because I was trying to take it all in. That was the best 20 minutes of my life out there skating with them.

“You’re playing against the best guys in the world. I knew I wasn’t going to stop most of them. I was lucky if it hit me.”

As for the game, Semborski didn’t play.

“Well you almost saw it,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said, referring to his frustration with a three-goal second period by the Flyers.

“That probably would have been a big mistake,” Semborski said with a laugh.

“That would have been so cool, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The experience was awesome.”

What did Quenneville think?

"That’s part of the process with all of the teams, they have the local amateur guys or sometimes guys who have played pro before," he said. "But with our cap situation, we needed an amateur, so he fit all the criteria and it was a good opportunity for him. ... It’s kind of a cool experience for the kid."

So Semborski sat on the bench, padded and ready. He smiled and watched, supporting his new team.

He, of course, is a Flyers fan, but …

“Not today,” he said with a smile. “Every other day, yeah, but not today.

“When I first got out there, I was like, ‘All right, if [the Flyers] score, don’t stand up. Just relax.’”

Semborski admitted to Chicago breaking his heart in 2010 when it beat the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final.

“That was one of the hardest things I ever watched,” he said. “But today, that’s all forgotten. I’m a ‘Hawks fan today.”

Afterward, Semborski said his phone was flooded with 70-something text messages and 20-plus phone calls.

“I’m going to have to start calling some people,” he said.

His first will probably be to a special loved one.

“It’s my dad’s birthday,” Semborski said. “So, happy birthday, Dad. Best present ever for you.”