Notes from a week of losing Sixers basketball

Notes from a week of losing Sixers basketball

While you were out tryptophanning it up this Thanksgiving season, the Philadelphia 76ers played a trio of basketball games, and like a good little bottoming-out basketball team, they lost all three of them. As I wrote earlier, this was the start to a pretty key stretch of the season for the 76ers, one that saw them playing a good number of teams they'll be in competition with for lottery balls come late May, and it was important for them to start to gain some separation from them in the race to the bottom. They've done that now--at 6-12, they now have the seventh-worst record in the league, with plenty of opportunity to sink even further--and though it's not always fun to watch, it's unquestionably important for the team's future.

Anyway, for a variety of reasons, it'd be pretty understandable if you took this last week off from Sixers basketball. If you did, here's a handful of things you missed that are of minor significance to the team's short-or-long-term outlook.

1. Defense is becoming increasingly come-as-you-are. In the three L's, the Sixers gave up an average of about 114 points per to the Magic, Pelicans and Pistons, and currently rank dead last in the league in terms of points, assists, blocks, steals, and three-pointers given up per game. That's due to a certain extent to the team playing at the top-rated pace in the league, leading to bigger totals in just about everything, but the Sixers are also giving up the fourth-worst three-point field-goal percentage and the eighth-worst two-point field-goal percentage on that gargantuan number of attempts, leading to predictably disastrous results.

The team's lassez-faire attitude in defending the three-point arc has always struck me as particularly egregious, to the point where I wondered if it was somehow Coach Brown's strategy to let other teams fire away from three, and just hope to get long rebounds off misses that they could take off the other way with. Given how furious Brown looked on the sideline as Brandon Davies repeatedly failed to switch onto Pelicans sharpshooter Ryan Anderson behind the arc off pick-and-pops on Friday night, I'm guessing that's probably not actually the case. Get it together, guys.

2. Thad's back. In the literal sense, Thad has returned to the team after three games missed while he was with his family after the tragic death of his nephew. In the less literal sense, however, Thad has also returned to form in the past week, averaging 21 and eight on 51% shooting over last week's three outings. He's also hitting from three again, draining six triples in 13 tries after going just 2-10 in his nine previous contests, and playing with the kind of energy and activity we've come to expect from Thad, especially over last season. It's not enough to help the team win games when nobody else seems to be giving a damn on the defensive end, but that's fine for now.

3. Evan is hitting from three again. After an absolutely brutal start to the season from range--an incomprehensible 6-39 over his first 15 games--Evan Turner drained a much more reasonable six of ten tries from deep this week, including a 3-3 night from beyond against the Pelicans. Evan gave good offensive efforts in all three games, keeping up his season-long consistency with an average of 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists on 56% shooting in the three L's. The defense comes and goes (mostly goes) with the Extraterrestrial, but as long as he can keep those offensive numbers up, and if he starts to hit the three with any degree of consistency he'll have some serious trade value when the new year rolls around.

4. Hollis Thompson has taken over from James Anderson in the starting lineup. Not guaranteed to stick, but on Sunday, Coach Brown tinkered with his starting five for non-injury-related reasons for the first time all season, inserting Hollis Thompson at the three, sliding Evan to the two and moving James Anderson to the bench. Thompson had been playing better off the bench, and it's been a season-long struggle for Anderson to find consistency, so the move wasn't terribly surprising, though Brown remarked that the switch was for defensive purposes against the sizeable Pistons, and is not necessarily something to be read into much.

I'm fine with the lineup switch on a per-matchup basis, but I still like Anderson more in the starting five--mostly because I don't like Turner at the two so much for this team, and I still believe in Anderson developing into something resembling a starting two-guard in this league. Anyway, Thompson's performance against Detroit (Six points, six rebounds, three assists, four fouls) was mostly middling, and Anderson had 11 points off the bench, so it seems pretty likely that the adjustment will be reversed in time for tomorrow night's game against the Magic. Worth keeping an eye on, though.

5. Anthony Davis went down. This is obviously related to the Sixers only tangentially, but New Orleans (and the NBA community in general) took a big hit in yesterday's Pelicans-Knicks game when Anthony Davis left with what turns out to have been a fracture in his left hand. Davis could miss about a month or longer with the injury, which is a really bad break for a team that was just starting to find its groove, crawling their way back up to .500. They were able to hold on to beat the ailing Knicks last night without their star forward, but their schedule doesn't have a lot of cupcake games on it the rest of the calendar year, and Davis--owner of the league's second-best PER--will certainly be missed.

This news is of note to the Sixers because of the draft pick owed to them by New Orleans in next year's draft, which the Pelicans get to keep if it lands in the top five. Losing Davis for a month or so won't likely put the Pelicans in danger of dropping that far in the standings, but it might keep at least them in the lottery, which is good news for the Sixers. Still, AD is one of the league's great young stars, and no side benefit to the Sixers would really be worth any threat to his long-term greatness, so we here at the Level wish him a thorough recovery.

Oh, and Tony Wroten's back. He did this the other night, which was cool:

Sixers return to action tomorrow night at home to the Magic. As my father would say, hope you all had a happy Tanksgiving.

Eagles Injury Update: Isaac Seumalo, Wendell Smallwood, Vinny Curry still out

Eagles Injury Update: Isaac Seumalo, Wendell Smallwood, Vinny Curry still out

The Eagles were back to practice on Tuesday without the same four players.

Isaac Seumalo (pec), Wendell Smallwood (concussion), Vinny Curry (knee) and Taylor Hart (knee) were all held out of practice.

On Monday, head coach Doug Pederson said the team would hold Seumalo back from practice until he was 100 percent. Pederson expects Seumalo back next week and then the team will make a decision about the starting offensive line.

Pederson also said he expects Curry and Hart back for the season opener on Sept. 11.

For the second straight day, however, Carson Wentz (ribs) and Jordan Matthews (knee) were practicing. Neither will play on Thursday in the preseason finale against the Jets, but both also said they'll be ready for the opener.

The Eagles wrap up their preseason at the Linc on Thursday with a 7 p.m. kickoff against the Jets.

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

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Photo: Dave Zeitlin

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

As Penn football players spread out around Franklin Field to take photos and do interviews for the program’s annual media day, Justin Watson hung by the track, playing a quick game of tag near the hurdles.

“Come and get me, J-Wat!” cried out Vhito DeCapria, the precocious 5-year-old cancer patient the team adopted last year through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation and who’s now back for his “sophomore” season.

Watson, known as “J-Wat” to most, smiled and played along. Being Vhito’s favorite player is just one of the many hats he wears. He’s also one of the team’s hardest-working, smartest and most versatile players — and he enters his junior season as perhaps the top wide receiver in the Ivy League, if not the entire FCS.

“Does he do anything to surprise me?” senior quarterback Alec Torgersen said from media day Monday. “Not anymore. He did at the beginning when he first got here. But now it’s just expected of him. I expect him to make those crazy one-handed grabs. I expect him to catch every ball I throw to him. When he doesn’t, I get disappointed.”

Torgersen has had plenty of opportunities to throw Watson passes — and not only last season when the star receiver caught 74 balls (fourth all-time at Penn) for 1,087 yards (second all-time) and nine touchdowns (third all-time). Throughout the summer, the two friends worked together at the same internship downtown. They ate lunch together every day and, at 5 p.m., they hopped on a subway back to Franklin Field, where they worked out in the weight room and practiced back-shoulder fades and option routes.

“A lot of college quarterbacks and receivers can’t have that type of chemistry but I think us being here all summer really helped,” Watson said. “It’s been cool doing that. It’s a special thing that’s definitely going to help us in the fall.”

In truth, Watson is actually more than just a receiver. Last season, he was also used on running plays, gaining 154 yards on the ground, including a 79-yard scamper that sealed Penn’s huge upset at Harvard. Watson finished with a staggering 249 all-purpose yards that day at Harvard Stadium, helping the Quakers win the game that effectively led to them sharing a piece of the Ivy League title. And he said he was all set to play another position by taking direct snaps in the team’s regular-season finale vs. Cornell before getting hurt.

“The uniqueness about Justin is not only his talent and skill on the field but his football IQ,” second-year head coach Ray Priore said. “During the course of the year, he in theory played every skill position on offense. And he didn’t even blink an eye doing it. That’s a special characteristic.”

Priore laughed when asked if he can find more ways to utilize Watson in 2016 but said he won’t put him back on kick returns, “which he probably could do.” He will, however, play safety when the Quakers line up in their “victory defense” at the end of games, “so you may see an interception.”

Watson says he’s ready for anything.

“That’s so much fun,” he said. “When you’re a kid in middle school, that’s what you do. It’s awesome to be back doing that. Anything I can do to help us win, I’ll do it, whether it’s running back or receiver. I don’t think they’ll let me throw it at quarterback after seeing my arm. But anything else I’m definitely willing and ready to do.”

In the end, though, playing receiver is what Watson loves most, saying that catching a deep ball — and hearing the crowd “hold their breath when the ball’s in the air and then erupt” — is his favorite thing as a football player. It’s also his skills as a receiver that has him earning so much attention heading into Penn’s opener vs. Lehigh on Sept. 17. Among his preseason accolades, the junior was named one of 22 players on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List — the only Ivy Leaguer to receive such an honor.

But if all of his records and accolades leads to opposing defenses paying more attention to him, Watson isn’t worried. That’s because he knows the team’s other receivers like fifth-year senior Cam Countryman and sophomore Christian Pearson are more than capable of having big years too.

“If you put two guys on me, we’ve got a bunch of other great receivers who will be open and will kill you down the field,” Watson said. “If I’ve got to take two or three guys every game, we’ll be 10-0 because I know everyone else will be making plays.”

It’s that kind of selflessness that has endeared Watson to his teammates, who enjoy the energy he brings to practice and how he always seems to be the first player in the training room.

“He’s an incredible player,” said Countryman, one of Penn’s leaders. “I have the utmost respect for him. When he came in his freshman year, you noticed right away the talent he had. So all of the accomplishments that he gets, I’m not surprised at all. 

“And they’ll keep coming in.”

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies (60-71) vs. Nationals (76-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies couldn't hit in Monday's series opener, but they did receive the positive of Jake Thompson finally looking like he can get outs at the big-league level. Thompson allowed two runs over seven innings, but the Phils were blanked by Tanner Roark for the third time this season.

The task Tuesday night is no easier.

1. Due vs. Scherzer?
When the Phillies face Max Scherzer, you can essentially chalk it up as an automatic loss. The Phils are one of the weaker offenses, Scherzer is one of the game's best pitchers, and his track record against them is nearly flawless.

Scherzer (14-7, 2.92) has faced the Phillies eight times since 2013. He's 6-0 with 1.74 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP, with 62 strikeouts and 10 walks in 57 innings. 

Scherzer had some early missteps this season, caused mostly by home runs, but he's been incredible since the middle of May, when he tied a MLB record with 20 strikeouts in a game. Since that game, he's 11-5 with a 2.40 ERA and .172 opponents' batting average in 20 starts. He's struck out 181 and walked 29 in those 139 innings. Ridiculous. Otherworldly.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, they'll be seeing a lot of Scherzer moving forward. He's in the second of a seven-year, $210 million free-agent contract with the Nationals that, to this point, he's lived up to.

Scherzer has a blazing fastball and a disappearing breaking ball. He throws strike after strike after strike, which is ironically what gets him into trouble at times. Like Cliff Lee, Scherzer is around the plate so often that hitters tend to attack his early fastballs. The result is a lot of solo home runs. But Scherzer has even corrected that issue of late, allowing just five homers over his last 11 starts.

2. Learn from Herrera
Odubel Herrera has had by far the most success of any active Phillie vs. Scherzer. He's 6 for 19 with a double, a triple and five walks. There are only six players in baseball with at least 20 plate appearances against Scherzer and an on-base percentage higher than Herrera's .458.

Herrera had a multi-hit game Monday, his fourth in his last eight contests. He's hitting .283/.361/.413 in 540 plate appearances this season, providing pretty much the same offense he did a year ago. But still, the Phillies would like to see more consistency from Herrera over the season's final month. His OBP had declined every month this year until August.

Phils manager Pete Mackanin said on Monday that Herrera will remain in center field the rest of the season. Mackanin had indicated several weeks ago that Herrera would see some time in the corner outfield to allow the organization to get a look at Aaron Altherr and perhaps even Roman Quinn in center field in September, but that's no longer the plan. Quinn is on the concussion DL at Double A, and the Phillies don't want to move Herrera around or do anything to affect his confidence at this point.

It still seems likely that Herrera will end up at a different position in the future because the Phillies have better defensive centerfielders.

3. Their steadiest starter
Jerad Eickhoff tonight makes his 27th start of 2016 and 35th career start for the Phillies. He's 9-12 with a 3.87 ERA this season and 12-15 with a 3.57 ERA in his career.

Eickhoff is coming off yet another quality start, his 14th. He's pitched at least six innings in 17 of his 25 starts. 

Strange as it is, Eickhoff has faced the division-rival Nationals only once in his career so far. He allowed two runs to them over seven innings with 10 strikeouts in his penultimate start last season.

Eickhoff has been much better this season at home (3.27 ERA) than on the road (4.56).

4. A night for small ball
One of the Phillies' goals this season was to manufacture runs because they don't have a ton of power. That will be especially necessary tonight against Scherzer, who's shut down every Phils hitter with pop.

Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp are a combined 5 for 31 (.161) off Scherzer. Ryan Howard, who's unlikely to play, is 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Herrera has gotten on base with regularity against him, and Cesar Hernandez is 5 for 18 with a double. Herrera and Hernandez will need to reach base and run tonight. Scherzer, however, does a better job than most aces of controlling the running game. He's allowed just 11 steals on 14 attempts in 60 starts with the Nationals.

5. This and that
• A loss tonight would put the Phillies 12 games under .500. Their record hasn't been that bad since June 27, which was 53 games ago.

• The Phils are 6-12 against the NL East since the All-Star break.

• It would have been difficult for Jayson Werth to play up to the seven-year, $126 million contract he got with the Nationals after 2010, but when you look back at his tenure in Washington he's had only two bad years out of six. In more than 3,000 plate appearances with the Nats, Werth has hit .269/.361/.442 for an .803 OPS that is 18 percent better than the league average over that span.