Now This is Fun: Three-Game Sixer "Test" Stretch Begins Against Nuggets

Now This is Fun: Three-Game Sixer "Test" Stretch Begins Against Nuggets

You'll all be happy to know that the Sixers remain on top of ESPN hoop guru John Hollinger's Power Rankings
for a second week this week, which is at least two more than we
would've expected from the Liberty Ballers going into '11-'12. But
looking amidst the many stats that Holly uses to calculate said
rankings, there's that one number that continues to make them stick out
from all the other top ten teams: .372, their "Strength of Schedule"
number that averages the record of the opponents the team has played.
For contrast, no other team in the top ten has an SOS lower than .460,
and the Heat (currently ranked at #2) are way up at .506.

All of this is to say that basically, the Sixers' opponents this season
have been creampuffs. Their "signature win" was against a banged-up
Pacers team at home, and the other three best teams they've played—the
Blazers, Jazz and Knicks—were all losses. (Close losses on the road, but
Ls just the same). Many, especially those incredulous at the Sixers' #1
ranking on ESPN (and even Marc Stein has 'em #3 now), say the Sixers
can't be counted among the East elite until they get some big Ws, even
if their chances at such big Ws have been few and far between in their
first 13 games.

Well, all that changes in the next three games. The Sixers play three
legitimate, proven teams now, with a chance to either show the league
that this team means business, or to demonstrate that we're still not
ready for prime time just yet. It starts tonight with a home game
against the 9-5 Nuggets, continues on Friday with a visit from the 10-4
Hawks, and concludes Saturday against the 9-4 Heat in Miami. Going 1-2
in this stretch would be borderline-acceptable, going 2-1 would be a
triumph, going 3-0 would be a downright statement. Going 0-3 would be
very, very tough to swallow.

Unfortunately, as will be the case for much of this strenuous,
strike-shortened season, the Sixers enter this pivotal stretch of the
season a little bit banged up. Coach Collins had even the boys doing
yoga to get their bodies right yesterday, but Spencer Hawes is still
gimpy with a sore back, and Evan Turner (who missed the Sixers' win over
the Bucks on MLK Day) is questionable with a thigh contusion. With
depth the Sixers' primary calling card, it's fairly crucial that these
guys be willing and able to play over the next three games—though at
least with the Sixers, unlike with some other teams, the loss of any one
guy isn't going to be exactly crippling.

As with the Bucks win, pivotal to success against the Nuggets will be
winning the point-guard battle. Jrue Holiday had his best game of the
season on Monday, with 24 points (on 11-17 FG), five dimes and five
steals, while helping keep Bucks PG Brandon Jennings to 7 points on 3-11
shooting. He'll need to perform similarly against Ty Lawson, the
lightning-quick point who the Sixers passed up to draft The Damaja,
currently in the midst of a near-All-Star season with the Nugs,
averaging 16 and 7 with nearly 50% shooting and a PER over 20.

7:00 tip from the WFC. "I'm down to win all of 'em—all the home games,
away games," Jrue boldly proclaimed after the Sixers' latest win. "We
could go undefeated from here on out. I'm cool with that.” Us too,
natch, though we might hit a hitch or two in that gameplan over the next
four days. If not, then we'll really have earned that #1 spot after all.

NFL Playoffs: Matt Ryan, Falcons dismantle Packers to reach Super Bowl LI

NFL Playoffs: Matt Ryan, Falcons dismantle Packers to reach Super Bowl LI

The Atlanta Falcons are headed to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history after routing the Green Bay Packers 44-21 in the NFC championship game.

Matt Ryan threw for four touchdowns, including a 73-yard catch-and-run for a highlight-reel score by star receiver Julio Jones. The defense played just as crucial a role in containing quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense.

Rodgers had 287 yards with three touchdown passes and an interception. But the Falcons got to Rodgers with pressure and forced two Green Bay turnovers. Rodgers was outplayed by Ryan, who even ran for a 14-yard touchdown.

Atlanta will play either New England or Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 in Houston.

The only other time that Atlanta made the Super Bowl was in the 1998 season. The Falcons lost 34-19 to the Denver Broncos.

The Packers fell in the NFC title game for the second time in three seasons.

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jonathan Isaac has a banner week

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jonathan Isaac has a banner week

Two of the country's top prospects faced off in the Pac 12 this week while a top 10 forward saw his season come to a premature close. However, we begin this week with the breakout performance by Jonathan Isaac.

Jonathan Isaac, forward, Florida St. (6-11/205)
Isaac's potential had everyone in the basketball world's curiosity. Now his play on the court has their attention. The Seminoles hosted No. 15 Notre Dame, which had yet to lose in ACC play before the Wednesday game. 

The freshman forward dominated in the 83-80 win. He had 23 points on 7 for 9 shooting from the field. He made both his threes, all seven of his free throws and also had one assist. His other stats were also otherworldly. He picked up 10 rebounds and had seven(!) blocks, including one on a late Notre Dame shot to get back into the game after he'd put the Seminoles ahead with a three. All this was in just 25 minutes

He followed it up with a similar game against Louisville. In 28 minutes, he had 16 points on 4 for 7 shooting, making one three and, again, all seven free throws. Add in two assists and two blocks to aid in the 73-68 win. Isaac has shown himself to be an athletic freak, a potential stretch-four at the next level and one with tremendous defensive potential, displayed with his nine blocks this week.

OG Anunoby, forward, Indiana (6-8/235)
Anunoby has had an uneven season, but he, at the very least, showed flashes of the ability that make him a top player for this year's draft class. However, a knee injury suffered on Wednesday finished off Anunoby's season, forcing him to undergo surgery that will keep him off the court for the rest of Indiana's schedule.

This may knock him out of the 2017 draft entirely. As a freshman last year, his NCAA Tournament performance was enough to make him a lottery pick in an even weaker draft field than the upcoming one. He chose to remain in school and it isn't farfetched to believe he will return to Indiana for his junior year to get more seasoning, a better draft field and another year of education.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA (6-6/190)
There are going to be quite a few marquee matchups in the Pac 12. One of the first this year came in the form of UCLA-Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday. The No. 3 Bruins lost, 96-85, but that had nothing to do with Ball's standout performance (more on the Wildcats below). He pushed the ball in transition, drove to the hole with ease and made 4 of 8 threes with his quirky shot. 

He had 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting and had eight assists, six rebounds, two steals and a block. When you watch Ball score so naturally, it's easy to forget his potential as a point guard, but then he whips up beautiful assists as he did many times on Saturday. The freshman has everything you want in a point guard.

Lauri Markkanen, forward, Arizona (7-0/225)
The No. 14 Wildcats picked up their biggest win of the year, moving to 7-0 in conference play. As you can expect, Markkanen had a big game to push Arizona past UCLA. He had 18 points on 6 for 10 shooting, was 3 for 3 from three and made three free throws, all which grabbing seven boards. Like Isaac, he is a tantalizing talent as a stretch-four, hanging out around the perimeter and spotting up for threes well.

He now has 16 made threes in his last four games and has averaged over seven boards in that stretch. He's not unbelievably thin like many fours his age. The freshman really can battle down low and get his shot, and he justifies his prospect status on a game-by-game basis with his ability.

Markelle Fultz, guard, Washington (6-4/195)
Washington lost on Saturday, moving to 9-10 and 2-5 in conference. But it's worth talking about Fultz's standout Wednesday night. The freshman willed his team back from 17-points down with a 37-point performance en route to an 85-83 OT win over Colorado. In 43 minutes, he was 13 for 24 from the field and 11 for 15 from the free throw line.

Don't think he's just a scorer, though. He had eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and three blocks, doing it all for the Huskies as he usually does. The freshman sensation was 0 for 2 from three, but he is normally efficient from beyond the arc. He alone is the reason to watch the under .500 Huskies.

While the 9-10 Huskies are unlikely to make a late run towards March Madness, the strong Pac 12 should provide many marquee matchups for Fultz. He faces off vs. a stout Arizona team next Sunday afternoon. Six days later, the long awaited matchup between Fultz and Ball up in Seattle goes down with presumably many scouts in attendance.

Quick Hits

Malik Monk, guard, Kentucky (6-4/185)
Twenty-seven points on 9 for 14 shooting, 4 for 7 from three, 5 for 6 on free throws, three rebounds, one assist, two steals and four turnovers in an 85-69 win over No. 24 South Carolina.

Josh Jackson, guard/forward, Kansas (6-8/203)
Fifteen points on 6 for 14 shooting, 2 for 5 from three, 1 for 3 on free throws, five rebounds, two assists, four steals and six turnovers in a 79-67 win over Texas.

Jayson Tatum, forward, Duke (6-8/204)
Fourteen points on 4 for 9 shooting, 1 for 4 from three, 5 for 6 on free throws, three rebounds, one assist, three turnovers and five fouls in a 70-58 win over Miami.