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.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.