One More For the Win: Jrue, Spence, Refs Help Sixers Take 3-1 Lead Over Bulls

One More For the Win: Jrue, Spence, Refs Help Sixers Take 3-1 Lead Over Bulls

Another ugly game, and this time, an ugly win to match for the Sixers.
It was looking like a pending feel-good W for Philly when Jrue Holiday
hit consecutive threes to put the Ballers up seven with just about 3:30
to go, but a Boozer three-point play and a CJ Watson jumper quickly cut
the lead to two, and the Sixers ended up needing a little help from the
refs to escape with the Game Four win. 
Still, it was a huge win for the
Sixers, and with the 3-1 series lead, you have to feel like now they're
actually—gasp!—the favorites to win in this series.

After a game three that saw the Sixers' guards balling and their
frontcourt go bone-dry from the field for the first three quarters,
matters were reversed for the Sixers today, with their backcourt
struggling enormously through the first three—Jrue was a horrific 1-14
at the half, with Evan Turner and Lou Williams not doing much
better—while the Sixers' bigs actually came through. Spencer Hawes in
particular was even stronger than he was yesterday, hitting from all
over the court (including a three at the end of the half that brought
Evan out of his seat on the bench) and ending with 22 points and eight
rebounds—the first Sixer center since Moses Malone to have to straight
post-season 20-pointers, apparently.

The Bulls, again missing their star point guard in Derrick Rose and
defensive anchor in Joakim Noah, just didn't have the weapons to put
away the Sixers today. Overpaid forward Carlos Boozer had a decent
enough game as the Bulls' featured scorer, putting up 23 points (but
needing 24 shots to do it), but their guards again struggled, with their
starting backcourt of C.J. Watson and Rip Hamilton shooting a combined
8-27 from the field, and all-star swing Luol Deng continuing to no-show
offensively, scoring just 11 points on as many FG attempts. (Partial
credit must go to the Sixers' back-court for the Bulls' continuing
shooting woes as well, with Turner and Holiday making up for their
lackluster offense with clampdown D.)

It seemed like the two teams' strengths and weaknesses canceled each
other out nearly all game, so it was no surprise to see the game go down
to the wire as it did on Friday. But the key sequence of the game might
have been one where the refs unfortunately took over the game with
their own erratic officiating, as a Carlos Boozer drive with about a
minute left, in which he appeared to be clocked by both Elton Brand and
Spencer Hawes, was not whistled, while a bump on Jrue Holiday at the
other end was, allowing the Sixers to go up four and take control of the
game. It took a little wind out of the joy of the victory for it to be
so zebra-influenced, but props to the Sixers for actually making their
free throws down the stretch—7-8 again down the stretch, including a
jaw-dropping two-for-two from Andre Iguodala—and it's not like the Bulls
were playing brilliantly down the stretch anyway, committing careless
turnovers and performing some Reid-worthy clock management.

I've taken the approach this series that it's more important that the
team really figures out who they are, rather than doing whatever it
takes to move on to the next round. 
This series already has so many
asterisks next to it that it almost doesn't matter long-term who ends up
winning, though it would be cool and somewhat hilarious to see this
team have a shot at getting to the conference finals—and as far as
looking towards the future, today wasn't quite as encouraging as
yesterday. Still, even if Evan had a rough day on offense, you liked
seeing him attack the basket on nearly every possession and shutting
down CJ Watson on D, and even if Jrue had a miserable showing from the
field in the first half, those two threes were absolutely cold-blooded,
and the converted final-minute free throws were nearly as huge. And
Spencer Hawes...well, a couple more games like this and we might have
some tough decisions to make in the off-season about our
flawed-but-versatile big man.

Game five in Chicago on Tuesday, with a chance to close out (!!!) the
Bulls and not see the WFC crowd again until round two. 
It's a weird
post-season, and if they do win the series, lord knows most people
aren't going to give the Sixers much credit for an upset. But to all
those people who may eventually be harping about how you can barely
consider it an upset consider the Bulls' injuries, I ask you this—how
many of you actually predicted the Sixers to win after Rose went down? I
certainly didn't, and I seriously doubt you did either. 
It will still
be a huge accomplishment for the Sixers if they win a fourth game in
this series, and though I don't know where they'd go from there, I'm
very proud of our boys for getting that far.

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

MONTREAL -- Eric Fehr and Jake Guentzel scored in the second period to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins past the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Wednesday night.

Defensemen Ian Cole and Olli Maatta also scored for Pittsburgh, which won its second game in a row after a three-game skid.

Sven Andrighetto scored for Montreal, which lost its second straight and has only two wins in its last six games. The Canadiens' offense remained in a rut coming off a 1-0 loss Monday in Detroit.

Penguins goalie Matt Murray was back in form after Monday's wild 8-7 win over Washington, making 19 saves. But Carey Price's woes continued as Pittsburgh outshot Montreal 26-20. Price allowed three or more goals for the eighth time in 10 games (see full recap).

Vanek, Nielsen lead Wings over Bruins
DETROIT -- Thomas Vanek and Frans Nielsen scored in a shootout, lifting the Detroit Red Wings to a comeback 6-5 win over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night.

The Red Wings rallied from 3-0 and 4-1 deficits in the first period, and with 3:04 remaining in regulation, Gustav Nyquist scored to pull them into a tie.

In the shootout, Tuukka Rask and Petr Mrazek stopped the first shots they faced before Vanek scored for the Red Wings and Brad Marchand countered with a goal for the Bruins. Nielsen, who like Vanek joined the team last summer as a free agent, scored on the team's third attempt and Vatrano missed the net with a chance to extend the 1-on-1 duels.

The Bruins were dominant early before blowing a chance to keep Detroit at a distance in the Atlantic Division standings (see full recap).

Burns, Pavelski push Sharks past Kings
LOS ANGELES -- Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels scored in the San Jose Sharks' seventh win at Staples Center in their last eight trips, 3-2 over the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night.

Joe Thornton had two assists and Martin Jones made 22 saves for the defending Western Conference champion Sharks, who wrapped up their regular-season series against their biggest rivals with three victories in five games.

After Burns scored his 19th goal in the opening minutes, San Jose hung on through a scoreless third period to continue its recent domination in downtown Los Angeles, including three victories in last season's first-round playoff series.

Tanner Pearson and Marian Gaborik scored for the Kings, who ended a seven-game homestand with four defeats (see full recap).

McDavid scores in OT, Oilers edge Panthers
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Connor McDavid scored the winning goal in overtime as the Edmonton Oilers won their fourth game in a row, 4-3 over the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night.

McDavid, who also had two assists in the game, got a breakaway late in overtime and got the puck away with 2.6 seconds left. Florida's James Reimer made the glove save, but the puck was ruled to be across the line via video review.

Zack Kassian, Mark Letestu and Jordan Eberle also scored for the Oilers, who have their longest winning streak since December 2015.

Vincent Trocheck, Michael Sgarbossa and Greg McKegg had goals for the Panthers, who have lost two straight (see full recap).

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity (see story). Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."