Same Old Sixers? Five Ways This Year's Team is Different Than the Last Few

Same Old Sixers? Five Ways This Year's Team is Different Than the Last Few

The script feels awfully familiar, it's true. The Philadelphia 76ers
have gotten off to a fairly good start this season, going 10-7 in their
first 17 games, but have done so mostly at home and mostly against
fairly weak teams, and it feels like only a matter of time until they
start falling back and end up about where they've ended up in four of
the last five seasons—with a seventh and eighth-seed in the playoffs and
an all-but-certain first-round exit. The Sixers aren't a bad team, but
they're not an elite team, and they will probably be exposed for their
mediocrity sooner or later, just as they have been every other year. 


However, even though the overall story arc is a retread, the season
doesn't feel quite like a repeat. That's because a number of the
details—including some of the cast and characters—have been different
enough from past years, last year especially, to keep things
interesting. Here are some of the changed subplots for the Sixers this
year:


1. They're winning in close games, not blowouts. When the Sixers
got off to their hot start last year, John Hollinger briefly had them
listed at the top of his Power Rankings. This year, they're in the 20s.
Why the huge disparity, despite the similar records? Scoring
differential. Last year, the Sixers were 12-5 after 17 games, but they
had an incredible +209 scoring margin, including eight wins of 20 points
or more against lottery-bound teams like the Raptors, Warriors, Pistons
and Wizards. The inflated wins, explained largely by the Sixers having
the advantage of a consistent roster from the year before in a
strike-shortened, training-campless season, made the team seem more
dominant than they actually were, and masked the fact that they still
had no idea how to win close games, an inability that would haunt them
later in the season when the rest of the league started to catch up to
them.


This year, the Sixers aren't blowing out anybody. Their biggest win
this season was a 15-point victory in New Orleans, and their nine other
W's have been by ten points or less—in fact, for the season, the Sixers
have a negative scoring differential, having been outscored by opponents
by a total of 14 points. Most statistical analysts would point to this
decreased scoring differential as a sign that this Sixers team is weaker
than last year's, and rightly so, though on the other hand, you could
at least say that this marks some sort of progress, that the fact that
the Sixers are now able to close in close games against mediocre
opponents, where their record last year in one-possession games was
abysmal. It's a change of pace anyway.


2. They don't fast break anymore. Whether a conscious
strategic decision by Coach Collins or a matter of changes in
personnel—the departed Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams were two of the
team's best fast-breakers and most aggressive playmakers—the team
doesn't really run anymore. After finishing in the top five in the
league in fast-break scoring each of the last five years (except for
last year, when they finished eighth), the team ranks only 19th this
season, with about 13 points a game.


With Jrue Holiday as the team's primary ball-handler, the team runs a
much more precise, orchestrated half-court offense that doesn't rely on
scoring in transition. Watching Holiday in transition, he rarely looks
to be bolting for the basket, instead just steadily advancing towards
the hoop, looking for easy-score opportunities to present themselves,
and running a play if none do. Given the improved half-court option the
team has acquired (Jason Richardson, Nick Young) or developed (Evan
Turner, Thaddeus Young) this year, this makes sense, though it results
in a lot fewer highlight dunks and such as we had with 'Dre and Sweet
Lou running the team at 60 MPH.


3. They can shoot the three-ball. The primary half-court
weapon the team has added to their arsenal this year is the
three-pointer. The team averaged a solid 36.2% from three last year, but
they barely shot the long-ball, averaging about 14.6 attempts a game,
the sixth-lowest rate in the league. This year, they're shooting more
from deep—about 18.5 attempts a game—and converting at a higher rate,
38.2%, good for sixth in the league. Thanks to the recently acquired
trio of Nick Young, Dorell Wright and Jason Richardson (particularly
Richardson, averaging 2.5 treys a game on 43% shooting) and internal
improvement from Jrue Holiday (39%) and to the surprise of many, Evan
Turner (42%), teams now need to honor the Sixers' three-point shooting,
giving Jrue Holiday more options when penetrating and Thaddeus Young
more freedom to operate on the post.


4. Their starters are their scorers. For the first two years
of the Doug Collins era, our Coach seemed obsessed with keeping scoring
balance between the starting lineup in bench, with two of the team's
three best scorers—including Lou Williams, who became the first player
in nearly 20 years to lead his team in scoring as a sixth man—coming off
the bench. Well, not this year—our top four scorers all start this
year, and they're the only four players on the team averaging
double-digits in points per game. Even the odd man out in the starting
lineup—Lavoy Allen, eighth in team scoring with 6.2 points a game—has
started to pick it up, going for double-digits in three of his last four
games after only doing so three times in the team's first 13 games.


This disparity might not exactly have been by design for Coach
Collins—he's probably still hoping to get more scoring out of Nick Young
(9.6 ppg, 38% FG), Spencer Hawes (7.2 ppg, 44% FG) and Dorell Wright
(7.9 ppg, 33% FG)—but it does sort of illustrate that the team's
strengths might not be in its depth, as it was last year, but rather
that our good players area really getting good. Which brings us to...


5. They have room for improvement. Under the guidance of
veterans Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Elton Brand, the team was
probably better at the beginning of last season than it has been this
season. But that team was never going to be better than it was during
that first month of the season—its core guys had already become who they
were, and the team's ceiling was correspondingly low. This year,
though, it's all about potential, which the team is only starting to
realize. Two of the team's core players, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young,
seem to be getting better with every game, and a third, Jrue Holiday,
seems like a front-runner for the Most Improved Player award with his
play all season. The chemistry is improving, a team identity is
emerging, and the unit on a whole just seems a lot stronger than it did
when the season began a month ago—with the potential to get even
stronger as the season goes on.


Oh yeah, and there's still that other guy, the world's most
controversial seven-foot Trina superfan, healing on IR, hopefully to
join the team before season's end. Maybe he makes the Sixers a whole lot
better with his return, maybe he proves toxic upon his return and
actually makes the team worse, maybe he doesn't return at all. But the
prospect of his return, however unlikely it might appear at this point,
means you can't close the book on this Sixers season just yet, since if
he actually does join the tam at some point, they instantly go
from being one of the most predictable teams in the league to one of the
most unpredictable. After years of knowing the ending in the first
couple chapters, we'll gladly take the promise of an uncertain ending.

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK – The New York Mets set the tone for this game early on Friday night. Their first two batters stroked Adam Morgan fastballs over the wall and they were off and slugging to a 9-4 win over the Phillies at Citi Field (see Instant Replay).
 
“There’s not much to say,” manager Pete Mackanin said afterward, “other than we have to pitch better.”
 
The Mets, very much in the thick of the NL wild-card race, played inspired ball in powering their way to their fifth win in the last six games. They hit four home runs on the night, including three against Morgan, and got a typically strong start from Bartolo Colon.
 
“It’s never good when you start a game by giving up two home runs,” Morgan said. “If I make better pitches, it’s a different outcome.”
 
The third home run that Morgan gave up was the killer. It was a grand slam by Wilmer Flores with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. That turned a 2-1 Mets’ lead into a 6-1 Mets’ lead.
 
Flores’ grand slam came on a first-pitch slider. Morgan threw nine pitches before walking Neil Walker, the previous batter, to extend the inning. One of those pitches was foul pop down the right-field line that Ryan Howard could not chase down. Had he been able to make the tough play, Morgan would have gotten out of the inning unscathed.
 
Then again, the pitcher could have gotten out of the inning unscathed if he did not give up the two-out walk to Walker.
 
Or make a mistake with the first-pitch slider to Flores.
 
“It was a bad pitch,” Mackanin said. “He tried to backdoor a slider and it ended up in his wheelhouse.”
 
As for the pop-up down the right-field line …
 
“I was hoping somebody could run that down,” Mackanin said. “Nevertheless, you’ve got to pitch around those things and make good pitches. That mistake to Flores put it away for them. Morgan had command issues. Too many pitches out over the plate.”
 
In all, Morgan allowed eight hits, including five for extra bases, in his five innings of work. He dropped to 1-8 and his ERA rose to 6.50.
 
Reliever Frank Herrmann gave up the Mets’ fourth homer, a two-run shot to Asdrubal Cabrera in the sixth. Cabrera homered from both sides of the plate.
 
Meanwhile, Colon, the Mets’ 43-year-old control artist, did what he often does to the Phillies. He gave up just three hits and a run through seven innings before hitting the wall and giving up three runs without getting an out in the eighth. Colon had to settle for seven-plus innings of four-run ball. He is 12-7 with a 3.44 ERA. He is 9-3 with a 2.98 ERA against the Phillies as a member of the Mets.
 
“He seems to own us,” Mackanin said. “We can’t seem to square up the ball against him. He does a tremendous job with control and command.”
 
Peter Bourjos concurred.
 
“He’s different than any pitcher you see these days,” Bourjos said. “You don’t see many guys throwing mostly fastballs at 88 mph and sinking it. You see some guys throwing a majority of sinkers, but it’s 95. This guy changes speeds on his fastball and locates it so well.”
 
The game marked the Phillies’ first without Carlos Ruiz, who was traded to the Dodgers on Thursday. Jorge Alfaro came up from Double A and served as the backup catcher. He is expected to return to the Reading club on Saturday when A.J. Ellis arrives. The Phillies picked up the veteran backup catcher in the trade.
 
Alfaro did not play, but called the experience of coming to the majors “a dream.”
 
That was the only thing that resembled a dream for the Phillies on Friday night.
 
They have lost 20 of 29 games to the Mets over the last two seasons and 12 of their last 16 in Citi Field, hardly encouraging with two more games to play in the series.

Soul fight off Rattlers' comeback bid, win ArenaBowl XXIX

Soul fight off Rattlers' comeback bid, win ArenaBowl XXIX

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Prior to ArenaBowl XXIX, the consensus among players and coaches was the team which makes fewer mistakes had a reasonable chance to win.

When the Arizona Rattlers committed two critical turnovers in the initial minutes Friday night, the Soul jumped out to an early lead and then capitalized on big plays from the defense to earn a 56-42 win and their second ArenaBowl title in franchise history.

The championship is the first for a professional team in Philadelphia since the Soul and Phillies each took individual titles in 2008. Villanova captured the men’s NCAA basketball championship this past April.

Coming into the title game at Gila River Arena, Arizona averaged 83.0 points per game in postseason play, and the Soul defense, which averaged 45.5 points allowed in playoff competition, did not deviate from its norm.

“We trust in our defense,” said defensive back Dwayne Hollis, who scored on an early fumble recovery and had a key interception late. “The fumble was great work from the line. A few guys got in there and the ball came loose. I was able pick it up and I only saw the end zone.”

This one started in a way all too familiar to the Soul defense.

Following a 16-yard touchdown reception from Darius Reynolds, and an early 7-0 Soul lead, Hollis scored just over three minutes later. That’s when he picked up the fumble from Rattlers running back Mykel Benson and ran 48 yards for the score.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Rattlers’ Anthony Amos could not handle the rebound off the netting in the end zone and Tracy Belton, the AFL Defensive Player of the Year, scooped up the loose ball for a touchdown. That brought the Soul out to a 21-0 lead less than seven minutes into the game, and created a relatively secure comfort level.

“We go against those guys every day in practice, and know how good our defense really is,” said quarterback Dan Raudabaugh, who finished with a 20-for-36 night, 278 yards and six touchdowns. “This is such a great defense, and they proved it when it counted.”

Despite an early lead, the Rattlers managed to catch the Soul at 42-42 early in the fourth quarter. On the next possession, Raudabaugh engineered a six-play scoring drive that culminated in a 21-yard TD strike to Shaun Kauleinamoku. After the extra point was blocked, that created a six-point lead, and then the key defensive play of the game.

As Arizona quarterback Nick Davila attempted to pass from the Soul 15-yard line, his arm was hit and defensive tackle Jake Metz recovered. From there, Raudabaugh connected with Kauleinamoku on a 30-yard scoring strike, and this one was in the win column for the Soul.

“Our defense is persistent,” said Metz, a native of Souderton, Pennsylvania, who went to Shippensburg University. “This group never gives up, and we did our job.”

In postgame awards, Kauleinamoku was named the Playmaker of the Game, and Belton was honored as the Defensive Player of the Game.

For his key 30-yard TD reception late in the game, Kauleinamoku was given the Catch of the Game, and Hollis’ fumble recovery and touchdown early was noted as the Highlight of the Game.

Instant Replay: Mets 9, Phillies 4

Instant Replay: Mets 9, Phillies 4

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — The New York Mets clubbed four home runs on their way to pounding the Phillies, 9-4, at Citi Field on Friday night.
 
Phillies starter Adam Morgan gave up six runs, all on homers.
 
Meanwhile, the Phillies’ bats did little against 43-year-old Mets starter Bartolo Colon for the first seven innings and by that time they were down by eight runs.
 
The Mets are in the thick of the NL wild-card chase and have won five of their last six. The Phillies have lost six of their last nine.
 
The Mets are 20-9 against the Phillies over the last two seasons.
 
Starting pitching report
Morgan was tagged for three home runs, including a grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. He gave up back-to-back homers on his first five pitches to open the bottom of the first inning.
 
In all, the lefty allowed eight hits, including five for extra bases, in his five innings of work. He dropped to 1-8 and his ERA rose to 6.50.
 
The grand slam was hit by Wilmer Flores on a first-pitch slider. Morgan threw nine pitches before walking Neil Walker, the previous batter, to extend the inning. One of those pitches was a foul pop down the right-field line that first baseman Ryan Howard could not chase down. Had he been able to make a play, Morgan would have gotten out of the inning unscathed.
 
Colon allowed four runs over seven-plus innings. Three of them came when he failed to retire a batter in the eighth. Colon is 12-7 with a 3.44 ERA. He is 9-3 with a 2.98 ERA against the Phillies as a member of the Mets.
 
Bullpen report
Frank Herrmann gave up three runs in two innings of work.
 
Hansel Robles, Sean Gilmartin and Jeurys Familia closed it out after Colon exited.
 
At the plate
The Phillies did not have a hit until Odubel Herrera’s one-out double in the fifth. He scored on a two-out single by Morgan. The Phils had just three hits through seven innings. Cesar Hernandez and Aaron Altherr teamed to drive in three runs with a pair of doubles off Colon in the eighth.
 
The Mets had 11 hits, four of which were homers. Asdrubal Cabrera homered from both sides of plate for the Mets.
 
Colon helped himself with a double, a single and two runs scored.
 
Jay Bruce was the only Met to struggle. He struck out four times.

Transaction
The Phillies brought up catcher Jorge Alfaro from Double A. The plan is to send him back Saturday when newcomer A.J. Ellis arrives and assumes the second catcher duties. Ellis was acquired from the Dodgers in the Carlos Ruiz trade Thursday. The trade left Howard as the lone member of the 2008 World Series championship still with the club. Howard can deal with it (see story).
 
Up next
Jeremy Hellickson (10-7, 3.60) opposes hard-throwing Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard (11-7, 2.61) on Saturday night.