Look Out Below: Three-Game Losing Streak Could Be Tip of Iceberg for Crashing Sixers

Look Out Below: Three-Game Losing Streak Could Be Tip of Iceberg for Crashing Sixers

On their own, none of the three games the Philadelphia 76ers lost last
week can be considered all that tragic. The first was against a tough
Bulls team that's won four of their last five games and always seems to
play the Sixers well, the second was against an improving Pacers squad
whose oversized frontcourt is a matchup nightmare for the undersized
Sixers, and the third was against a rebounding Lakers squad that
couldn't miss from downtown, and was led by Kobe Bryant with his typical
all-around scoring brilliance. All three were winnable games, but
especially with leading scorer and distributor Jrue Holiday missing the
last two, they're forgivable losses.


However, by failing to steal a single one of the three, now the
Sixers are really in trouble. Throughout their first 24 games, we've
been espousing the importance of the Sixers picking up as many wins as
possible while their schedule was still soft on road games and tough
opponents, because that's about all they have coming up—10 of the
Ballers' next 11 are on the road, including games against likely
playoff-bound squads like the Nets, Grizzlies, Spurs, Thunder and
Warriors. A couple of the games might be winnable, but none of them will
be cupcakes, and the Sixers haven't shown much recently to make you
think they'll be able to handle any opponent easily.


Fact of the matter is, the Sixers a little lucky to even be 12-12
right now. Not only have they played one of the NBA's easiest
start-of-season scheduled, their point differential over their 12 wins
and 12 losses is a dismal -66, more indicative of a team several games
under .500. They've been held under 100 in seven of their last eight
games, and they haven't won a game by double digits since early
November. The Sixers are still in the top ten in defensive efficiency—or
at least they were before last night's 111-point Laker performance—but
their offensive efficiency is in the bottom ten, and their true shooting
percentage in the bottom five. This team just can't score enough to win
a lot of games.


So what happens if the Sixers go 3-8 or 2-9 in their next 11, a
possibility that's disturbingly real at this point in the season? That's
not to say that the Sixers are doomed to so much losing—they should
hopefully be getting Holiday back any game now, and in his absence a
couple of the Sixer reserves (namely Nick Young and Spencer Hawes) have
started to regain their stroke, so it's possible that the team at full
strength will be playing at their best for the season. But then again,
maybe Holiday misses a couple more games, maybe Hawes and Young go back
to bricking, maybe even Evan Turner finally cools off significantly and
shoots the team out of a couple games. Betting on everything to go right
is rarely a smart proposition, and the Sixers have a much slimmer
margin of error this year than we previously thought.


Anyway, if they do go on such a losing tear, what does that mean for
the rest of their season? If they approach the trade deadline well
under .500, does that mean that rather than trying to make a trade to
plug a couple of their roster holes this season (a starting-caliber big
man, a competent backup point guard), they go into sell mode, trading
away non-core pieces like Jason Richardson, Nick Young, Dorell Wright or
(if anyone's dumb enough to take his contract) Spencer Hawes? Will that
inspire the Sixers to wave the white flag for this year?


Tanking is pretty antithetical to the Doug Collins experience, so
I'd be surprised to see the team pack it in before they absolutely have
to this year. But it is worth keeping in mind that the Sixers'
first-round draft pick next year is the lottery-protected property of
the Miami Heat, so the Sixers only get to use it if they land outside of
the playoffs. Next year's draft is said to be pretty weak, but even in
the mid-late lottery of a weak draft, you still have at least a decent
shot at adding a cheap player that could end up being a core piece, and
the Sixers could certainly use an extra one of those moving forward. If
the season looks like a lost one anyway, no Sixer fan will be
heartbroken at missing an opportunity to grab an eighth seed and get
bounced in the first round again.


Of course, there's still a very large wild card at play here, and
one whose role will hopefully become clearer this Thursday, when Andrew
Bynum goes in for an MRI, which should determine whether Bynum and his
gimpy legs are on track to return at some point in 2013, or whether he
needs to have season-ending injury. If it's the latter, then there
almost seems to be no point in pushing for the playoffs this season, and
a partial rebuild really might be the answer.


If it's the former, though, and Bynum might actually make it back to
the Sixers sometime in February or March, then that complicates things,
since the Sixers will want to give Bynum as much an opportunity as
possible to play with the existing Sixers core and prove his worth (and
more importantly, his health) before Philly potentially re-signs him in
the off-season. Naturally, we'd kill for that kind of complication, if
it meant a chance to see Bynum in action. But if the news on Thursday is
bad—and given recent history, we certainly can't write off that
likelihood—and then the Sixers struggle to grab wins on this upcoming
roadtrip, then this season could become an afterthought by New Year's.


Even if so, the long-term future for this team is looking bright, if
not overly so. Jrue Holiday is still playing at an All-Star level,
Thaddeus Young is posting career highs across the board, Evan Turner has
scored in double-digits for 16 straight games after not doing so more
than five games in a row anytime before that. If the worst is true about
Bynum and he's destined never to play a game in a Sixers uniform, we'll
still have a good deal of cap space this summer to add an impact free
agent, and possibly a decent draft pick to throw into the mix as well.
It'll just mean another year of waiting for relevancy for the Sixers,
and for better or worse, we're pretty used to that by now.

Temple great Tyler Matakevich soaks in rookie return to Philadelphia with Steelers

Temple great Tyler Matakevich soaks in rookie return to Philadelphia with Steelers

It’s a picturesque early autumn Thursday evening in the Delaware Valley. One of those nights when swaths of orange from the sunset to the west pierce the high sky like shards of broken glass.

Weather reports say it’s a similar type of evening all the way across the other side of the commonwealth in Pittsburgh, where Tyler Matakevich now makes his seasonal home. There could have been monsoon-like rains or gale-force winds or any type of terrible weather outside and it still couldn’t hush the excitement in Matakevich’s voice that torqued its way through the phone.

That’s because the former Temple Owl linebacker is less than 72 hours away from returning to play at the same field where he plied his trade for four years and left a program legend. And he’s coming back living his dream as a Pittsburgh Steeler. On Temple’s homecoming weekend, no less.

“I’m definitely excited for this and to come back to Philly,” the 22-year-old rookie told CSNPhilly.com prior to Week 3’s Steelers-Eagles game. “I talk to a lot of the guys still on the team like (senior quarterback) P.J. (Walker), (senior linebacker) Jarred Alwan, (senior linebacker) Stephaun Marshall. I know all those guys are looking forward to me coming back and spending time with them. … I hope to see those guys for a little bit. A good amount of them are coming to the game, too, so I’m excited about that.”

The anticipation in the young linebacker is evident. He’s coming back to his “home away from home.”


Matakevich is arguably the greatest football player in Temple history. For four years, he was the leader of a defense that grew to become one of the fiercest in the nation.  He recorded over 100 tackles in each of his four seasons on North Broad Street and added seven sacks and seven interceptions.

Not too shabby for a guy who had only one FBS-level scholarship offer and only got a shot to play as a freshman when the upperclassman above him on the 2012 depth chart was injured before the fourth game of the season. In what was supposed to be a spot start, Matakevich, then a fresh-faced 18-year-old, recorded 15 total tackles after playing sparingly on special teams the prior three games.

Incredibly, Matakevich wasn’t even the player Temple was recruiting when Matt Rhule, Temple’s current head coach who was then the recruiting coordinator under former head man Steve Addazio, went to Milford Academy Prep School in Matakevich’s native Connecticut on a scouting trip. Milford’s coach wouldn’t let Rhule leave without watching film of Matakevich.

“We watched his highlight DVD and he just kinda had it,” Rhule told CSNPhilly.com last December. “We went out and watched him play and he had it. (Former Temple offensive line coach) Justin (Frye) and I just kind of had a feeling this guy was special. I like to think I’ve always had a feel for linebackers. So we called Steve and he said if you guys think he’s that good, offer him.”

Rhule’s gut feeling turned out to be more correct than he ever imagined.

Matakevich put an exclamation point on his excellent college career with a monster 2015 season when he recorded 138 total tackles, five interceptions and 4½ sacks en route to being the first Temple defensive player to earn first-team All-American honors and the first Owl to do so at any position since 1986. He also brought home some impressive hardware as he won the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronco Nagurski Trophy, both annually given to the best defensive player in all of college football.

Simply put, he is this generation’s Owl. Revered on North Broad Street, he is the player this crop of Temple fans will tell tales of watching play to future generations.

Matakevich accomplished all that during a season in which Temple shed its downtrodden, sad-sack label to the national eye by busting into and staying in the top 25 for the first time since the end of the 1979 season, beating Penn State for the first time since 1941 and, most notably, hosting Notre Dame in a primetime instant classic that was preceded earlier in the day by ESPN’s College Gameday broadcasting from Independence Hall in front of a massive live audience.

Those who’ve followed the program, intently or casually, would have thought there would be confirmation of human life on Mars before those last two things ever happened.

But they happened. It all happened and Matakevich was the freckled face of the revolution.

“It was something special and something I’ll always remember,” Temple’s all-time leading tackler (493) said of last season. “Our senior class, what we went through, going 2-10 in 2013, coaching changes, 6-6 and not going to a bowl to the season we had last year, it was just relieving, really. Such an awesome feeling that I was just able to sit and reflect on it. I was actually doing it the other day with (Redskins defensive lineman and former Temple teammate) Matt Ioannidis. I’ve got to pinch myself a little bit. When people are telling me all these things we accomplished, I’m sort of like, ‘Wow, we did do that.’”

Despite the accolades, Matakevich wasn’t seen as a great NFL prospect in large part because of a perceived lack of athleticism.

He was too slow. He couldn’t jump high enough. He wasn’t strong enough. The list of knocks can keep going.

The 6-foot-1, 235-pound tackling machine slipped down draft boards, and watched teammates corner Tavon Young (Ravens) and Ioannidis get selected. But he didn’t fall all the way off the board. In the seventh round, the Steelers used pick No. 246, eighth from last, to take a flier on the Temple linebacker.

Matakevich was left virtually unwanted by the big boys. Sounds familiar, huh?

“Once I finally got that phone call, I was just so excited,” Matakevich said. “That’s been my dream since I was a little kid. And to finally actually get that phone call, it made it feel like everything was worth it. All those long days I put in. I told the coaches, ‘This is just the beginning.’”

Matakevich earned his keep during training camp and was rewarded with a spot on the Steelers as a special teamer.

“He’s doing some of the things here that he did in Philadelphia,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said last week. “He’s displayed great instincts and urgency. He gets to the ball and he’s always around the ball. He makes a lot of plays. He’s acclimating himself right now in terms of being one of our core special teams contributors. I don’t see why he can’t be great in that area while he continues to grow as a young linebacker. I’ve been pleased with his progress.”


Fast forward to a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in South Philadelphia. Earlier in the day, Young recorded his first career interception with the Ravens and Ioannidis suited up for the first time with the Redskins in a regular-season game after he was activated from the practice squad.

But here is Matakevich, standing in a familiar tunnel, staring out at a familiar swatch of grass. He’s standing in the tunnel the Owls come out of and staring out toward the grass he tackled so many foes on.

But he’s not wearing cherry and not coming out to the sounds of Temple’s band and a screaming student section. He’s wearing Steelers black and gold and he’s standing in enemy territory, surrended by a sea of Eagles midnight green.

“It was awesome being back on that field again,” Matakevich said after Carson Wentz and the Eagles pummeled his Steelers, 34-3. The rookie saw kickoff and punt return snaps, but did not record a tackle.

“It didn't go the way we wanted it to, obviously. But I was so excited and so amped up. I played a lot of football here. Just to have the opportunity to come back and play here. I couldn’t be anymore excited and happy. I just tried to enjoy it. I get to keep playing football for a living. Not many guys get to move on after TU. So I’m just thankful and enjoying it and having fun.”

“I was just so happy to see him get out there and play and come back to his old stadium,” Rhule said of his former pupil after Sunday’s game. “For me, it’s always gratifying any time I see any of the guys that played for me being successful in anything, whether it’s their personal lives, their business lives, their football lives. It’s a lot of fun for me. It’s pretty cool for me to turn on the TV and see Tavon making big plays for the Ravens or to see Tyler out there playing and see Matt get activated and make the Redskins.

“I was really happy for Tyler. I’m proud of him and I’m excited he got the chance to come back and play in Philly.”

Matakevich still keeps a keen eye on the Owls and tries not to miss a game, even though professional responsibilities sometimes get in the way. He wasn’t able to catch Temple’s 48-20 homecoming win over Charlotte and had to later settle for highlights because the Steelers were traveling to Philadelphia, but he watched all of the narrow 34-27 defeat at Penn State two weeks ago.

“Let me tell you, it’s been frustrating,” Matakevich said with a chuckle. “I’ve never had to watch those guys play from so far away and now I’ve started doing that. At first, it took a little adjusting getting used to it. But I watch. I thought we had it. I really thought we had that win at Penn State.”

Matakevich mentioned he was able to spend time on Saturday night with former teammate and Temple star running back Jahad Thomas after the Owls’ victory. He and Thomas remain close and Matakevich is always there to provide a listening ear when needed.

That’s the thing about Matakevich and his relationship with Philadelphia, a place he gleefully calls his adopted hometown. Though he’s a Connecticut guy through and through and always will be, there will always be people and places here that will be a part of him forever.

“I love it here,” he said of Philadelphia. “I have some unbelievable memories here, especially on this field. It’s always been good to me. It’s always going to be my home away from home.”

Unlike 2 years ago, Dario Saric feels ready for the NBA

Unlike 2 years ago, Dario Saric feels ready for the NBA

Dario Saric wanted to come to the NBA. He just didn’t feel ready when he was drafted in 2014.

Saric spent the past two years furthering his basketball career in Europe after being selected 12th by the Magic and traded to the Sixers. Now 22, he is confident in his decision to start his NBA career in Philadelphia. 

“I grew up like a person first. After that, I grew up like a player to play against the best players in the world,” Saric said Monday at Sixers media day. “I think now I feel I’m ready. I feel I can give something to this team.”

Basketball itself wasn’t the issue — Saric has been playing professionally since the age of 15. He has competed against top European competition, won numerous accolades, and was a member of the Croatian Olympic team this summer. 

Saric knew he could play in the NBA, but there is so much more involved in it for him. Joining the Sixers meant leaving Europe, moving to a new place to play in a new league, all at the young age of 20. 

“After NBA draft, I wasn’t ready to come here,” the forward said. “Not like a basketball player, like a man. I wasn’t ready because to take a big step, to go out of the family, to go to another country. For me it was so hard. ... I decide[d] during last season I would come here, I would try to play with the best players in the world.”

From season to season, the anticipation of Saric’s arrival grew. The Sixers' front office and staff kept in frequent contact. Saric often was in communication with head coach Brett Brown, former general manager Sam Hinkie and current president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo. Assistant director of player development Chris Babcock also made trips to Istanbul to spend time with Saric.

All the while, Sixers fans eagerly awaited his decision. When he agreed to sign in July, he was taken aback by the reception. 

“I was surprised, I didn’t expect it to be something like that,” Saric said. “I know people waited for me like two years to come here. I know there’s, I can say, some kind of pressure on me.” 

With that pressure, Saric hopes to bring a winning mentality from his successes overseas. Colangelo has been impressed by the sampling he has observed of Saric during informal preseason team scrimmages. He grouped Saric with 6-foot-10 rookie Ben Simmons when discussing the Sixers’ bigs with diverse skillsets.

“What I see is a versatile player, a skilled big man that can do a number of things,” Colangelo said. “When you’re talking about 6-9, 6-10 and 6-11 players that are skilled and adept at ball handling, passing, driving, kicking out, thinking team-first — it seems both players — I think that’s a tremendous asset to have.” 

Saric understands, though, there will be a transition period as he adapts to the NBA. In the short time he has been around the Sixers, he has already noticed differences in the style of play. 

“What I can see is faster,” he said. “Everybody said the first couple of months will be like that. After that you will catch that rhythm, or that speed for your eyes and you will be faster. That’s the first thing I recognized, that I saw.”

Saric also noted the difference in format of the seasons, pointing out the tightly-packed 82-game NBA schedule. With so many adjustments, he plans to lean on his network of European players in the league, past and present. This summer, he received advice from former Sixer Toni Kukoc when he worked on the Croation National Team coaching staff. Even the smallest suggestion like stretching after practice is resonating with Saric.

“Toni, he told me for sure it will be hard for you when you come, but you must try to keep work[ing] day-by-day,” Saric said. 

For the player who once didn't feel ready for the NBA, Saric quickly has been pleased with his decision to play for the Sixers this season. 

“Everything is better than what I expect,” he said.