Sixers beat Wizards to go 2-0: Have fun with it and don't panic yet, Tankadelphia

Sixers beat Wizards to go 2-0: Have fun with it and don't panic yet, Tankadelphia

I made the same comment to just about anyone I talked to about the Sixers this pre-season: That I was grateful that the NBA had frontloaded the Sixers' schedule with so many seemingly unwinnable games that it would be virtually impossible for the team to get off to a hot start and get people's hopes up that this team was better than it actually was.

Whoops. I guess when something is "virtually" impossible that means it's at least a little bit "actually" possible, and the Sixers have exploited that minority percentage for two straight wins to start the NBA season. Tonight it came against the Washington Wizards--not exactly world-beaters like the two-time champion Heat, but a team with playoff aspirations and at least two young players who the Sixers would gladly trade their entire roster for--with a final score of 109-102. (Combined with the opener's 114-point tally, that means that the season after trading their best offensive player, the Sixers have scored more across their first two games than they did in any two-game stretch last year.)

And it wasn't the same as last night, either--the Sixers getting off to an impossibly hot start that it at least took the Heat an entire two quarters to catch up with, then just kinda outlasting them at the end. This time, it was Washington (and franchise point guard John Wall specifically, who started the game 6-6 with 16 points in the first quarter) who were blistering out of the gates, and Philly who needed two quarters to claw back into it. But claw they did---with their FINGAHNAILS--and in the fourth quarter, they were the team pulling away as the Wizards lost their composure and basically fell apart. You'd never know the Sixers were a team that replaced half their roster with younger, less polished players a year after finishing 34-48.

The primary engine drivers tonight were the Sixers' Big Three--don't laugh, at least not too loudly--of Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes. A game after finishing with 26 points on 10-19 shooting, five assists and four rebounds, the Extraterrestrial replicated that performance with an almost eerie precision, going for 23 (10-18 shooting), six boards and four dimes, and again keeping the team afloat in the middle quarters with some beautiful shot creation in the half-court and a couple cherry-picked buckets in transition.

Thad bounced back from a rough outing last night with one of his best games as a Sixer, going for 29 and eight and hitting seemingly everything he put up in the second half, a stark contrast to last night's barrage of close-range misses. His instincts to get to where he needed to be near the basket (and when he needed to be there) to pick on gorgeous feeds from the likes of MCW and Hawes--more on him in a minute--were absolutely pitch-perfect. I mean, look at this friggin' shot chart, courtesy of ESPN.com:

Can't ask for much higher-percentage than that, can you?

As good as Evan and Thad were tonight, though, it was Spence that really impressed me. 16 points (including a team high three triples!), 14 boards and five dimes, as well as providing a surprisingly solid presence in the middle, at least in the game's later stages.  Coupled with his 24-point outing last night, Spence is officially playing his best basketball since he looked like an All-Star candidate for about three weeks at the start of the lockout-shortened '11-'12 season.

The assists were the sweetest part, as Spence proved quite adept tonight at finding the leaking man in transition with perfect outlet passes for easy baskets. I've often thought Spence's supposed passing skills were overrated and possibly non-existent--he's still never notched double-digits in a game, and it seems like most of the time, our big man fancying himself a distributor just results to a lot of forced bounce-passes to cutters that end up going off a teammate's foot and out of bounds, or starting the fast break in the other direction. But tonight, you really saw the benefits of having a big man and rebounder that's not afraid to go for the home-run dish.

Of course, you have to wonder how much that, and all of the rest of this, has to do with Coach Brown. Coaches always get too much credit when the team is doing well and too much blame when they're doing poorly, so I don't want to crown him as the next Popovich just yet, but it really seems like he's doing a good job of getting the best out of what this team has to offer, whether that's offering Spence the freedom to take threes, or letting Michael Carter-Williams gamble for steals a little on defense, or making sure the entire team runs runs runs at every given opportunity to get as many easy points as possible--something Doug Collins seemed to actively de-emphasize towards the end of his Sixers tenure. (I have the ESPN NBA game taped tonight, and I look forward to watching Dougie at halftime and seeing how he reacts to the suddenly 2-0 76ers.)

Oh yeah, and let's not forget about that dude Michael Carter-Williams. It looked at first like MCW was gonna get absolutely walloped with regression to the mean in this one, as he started the game 1-6 with more turnovers than assists. But as the game went on, his confidence seemed to pick up, and by the final quarter he was hitting stepback threes and making gorgeous dishes to Spence and Thad, ending the night with a thoroughly respectable 14 points (6-15 shooting), five assists and three rebounds. Michael won't make SportsCenter for this one--though the alley-oop he deposited from Evan on an out-of-bounds play was impressive, if a little awkward--but if we could rely on that kind of nightly production from MCW this season, we'd certainly take it.

Now, I know what you're all wondering: Should we be worried about this? I mean, as much fun as it is to win two games in two tries when most (including myself) thought they'd be lucky to have that many W's by Thanksgiving, everyone knows that this wasn't the plan Sam Hinkie or anyone else in the Sixers organization had in mind for this season--we were supposed to bottom out, to lose and lose and lose until the NBA just gave us the #1 pick to make us stop. If we keep winning like this, we might just end up in the middle again, which is what we were supposed to avoid doing this season at all costs.

Well, you can rest your weary heads tonight, Sixers fans, safe in the knowledge that as simultaneously thrilling and terrifying the last two W's have been, it's not gonna last forever. The season's new, and it's still very possible to catch teams off guard--as evidenced by the fact that the mostly deplorable Suns, Kings, Bobcats and Magic have all picked up wins already as well. The Charlotte Bobcats went 7-5 in their first 12 games last season, getting pundits to label them a surprise fringe playoff contender, before they lost their next 18 games on the way back to the bottom of the East. None of this necessarily means anything yet.

But does it mean that the Sixers may be, just may be a little better than most people thought? I think so. I never thought the team was going to challenge for the all-time loss record--I pegged them for a respectably terrible 22-60 record in the Sixers Prediction League, which I'm still sticking with--because I thought that even if their core was subpar-to-mediocre, they at least had well-defined roles and complemented one another well enough that they could win a handful of games just by being solid and taking advantage of the messier teams when their games devolved into chaos. So far so good with that, though I'd be loath to ignore the fact that some of the performances--MCW's debut, Spence from behind the arc tonight--were probably a little fluky and unlikely to oft be repeated.

Where this team will decisively lose games, and lots of them, is with its second unit. You could see it tonight--during those mid-half stretches where the starters rested, there just wasn't nearly enough play-making or experience on the court to really get anything done. Tony Wroten can create havoc in transition, but struggles to run plays in the half-court. Lavoy Allen is a decent complementary guy but doesn't have the moves produce much on his own. Daniel Orton has moments of jaw-dropping potential, sprinkled among long stretches of poor fundamentals and poorer fitness. Darius Morris and Hollis Thompson might not be NBA players. The Sixers saw their deficit grow the longer their bench unit was out there, and there are going to be a lot of games this season where those stretches of negative basketball make the difference between wins and losses.

But through two games, the starting lineup (with Wroten as its sixth man) has shown that it has enough shooting, passing, athleticism, smarts and overall floor balance to stay in games, and even steal a couple. This can really only be a good thing for the team moving forward. Forcing a raw rookie like Michael Carter-Williams (well, he seemed raw up until this Wednesday, anyway) to learn how to run a team with running mates too incompetent for him to maximize his potential doesn't do anyone any good, particularly MCW, and in the meantime, he's building chemistry with James Anderson and Thaddeus Young and other guys who might still be around for when the team's ready to be good--like, actually good--again.

In the meantime, if players like Spence and Evan, who as of now don't seem to feature in the team's future plans, want to continue playing the best, most consistent ball of their careers, that's just giving Sam Hinkie the proper ammunition to go into the NBA's trading season locked and loaded with assets to further set this team up for the future, and maybe ensure that they stay bad enough this season to stay in the tanking race. Really, as long as the team doesn't suddenly reverse course and start trading cheap young guys for expensive vets in a misguided attempt to chase a playoff seed--impossible to imagine under Hinkie's watch--nothing about the team playing this well this early in the season can be considered a bad thing.

And at the end of the day, it's still only two games, with plenty of opportunities to pile up losses still to come--including an especially choice one tomorrow night at home against the Chicago Bulls. Really, we should all just be enjoying this--through two games, we've already had more elation and excitement than most of us expected to feel from this team all season.

So go pet a dog, buy a big ol' chocolate ice cream cone, finally tell her or him how you really feel. It's nothing but good times right now with the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers, and we should do our damnedest to have fun with it for as long--probably not very long--as we possibly can.

Darren Sproles signs 1-year extension with Eagles

Darren Sproles signs 1-year extension with Eagles

The Eagles signed veteran running back and punt returner Darren Sproles to a one-year contract extension Friday morning.

Terms of the deal were not immediately available, but Sproles is due to earn $3.5 million in base salary in 2016. Sproles, a Pro Bowler in each of his two seasons with the Eagles, is now signed through 2017. He was due to become a free agent after this season.

Sproles skipped the Eagles’ voluntary organized offseason workouts and the given reason was to spend more time with his family in San Diego. But Sproles’ contract status certainly could have played a role in his reason to stay away.

Sproles, 33, is tied for seventh in NFL history with Dave Meggett with seven career punt returns for touchdowns.

After five years with the Chargers and three with the Saints, he has enjoyed a career resurgence with the Eagles, making his first two Pro Bowl teams and becoming only the second player in NFL history with four or more punt return TDs after his 30th birthday. The other is Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.

In his career, Sproles has 2,867 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns with a 5.0 average rushing and 473 receptions for 4,156 yards and 28 more touchdowns.

With 133 more rushing yards and 27 more receptions, Sproles will become only the 12th player in NFL history with 3,000 rushing yards and 500 receptions.

Sproles' 5.0 career rushing average is 14th-highest in NFL history among non-quarterbacks with at least 500 rushing attempts.

In two seasons with the Eagles, he has 646 rushing yards and 95 receptions, although his 3.8 rushing average last year was well below his career average.

He has two punt return TDs in each of his seasons with the Eagles and is one of only seven NFL players in history with consecutive seasons with multiple punt return touchdowns.

Sproles entered the league as the Chargers’ fourth-round draft pick in 2005. The Eagles acquired him – or stole him – from the Saints in March 2014 in exchange for a fifth-round pick.

That pick turned out to be Ronald Powell, a linebacker who played in just 14 career games and is not currently in the league.

Aaron Altherr provides major spark in season debut to lead Phillies past Braves

Aaron Altherr provides major spark in season debut to lead Phillies past Braves

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies are still looking for the real Aaron Nola, but they may have found a useful bat Thursday night.

Aaron Altherr had the kind of season debut he’d dreamed about for the four months he was on the disabled list as he helped the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-5, at Turner Field (see Instant Replay).

Altherr was one of three Phillies to hit home runs on a night when the offense awakened after generating just one run the previous two days in Miami. Altherr, who came off the disabled list earlier in the day after missing four months with a wrist injury that required surgery (see story), drove a two-run homer to left in the fifth inning. Earlier in the game, Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph had back-to-back homers to headline a five-run first inning.

Franco leads the team with 19 homers and Joseph, hitting .375 with six homers in his last 17 games, has 14 in just 57 games with the club.

Altherr, who batted fifth behind Franco and Joseph, also had two hard singles in the game.

“He had a really good night in his debut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He provided a spark for us. He added to the offense. So I'm happy for that. It's good to get a win. We scored some runs, finally.”

Altherr was projected to be a starter in the Phillies’ opening day outfield until he suffered the wrist injury in spring training. He spent the last four months in Clearwater, rehabbing and, well, dreaming of a night like this.

“Definitely, especially sitting around thinking about how that first game's going to be being back,” he said. “For it to be like this, it was definitely special and I have to thank the Lord above for getting me back here as fast as He could.

“I was hoping to get a home run in the first game, but I definitely wasn't expecting it. Just hopeful. To have it happen like that was definitely awesome.

“It definitely surprised me a little bit because I hadn't really been driving the ball like I had wanted to down in my rehab stints. I'm just glad to know I've got [the power] in there somewhere.”

The Phillies hit all three of their home runs and scored all their runs against Atlanta right-hander Matt Wisler. He received a ticket to Triple A after the game.

The Phillies batted around against Wisler and scored five runs in the first inning. That was a welcome cushion for Nola, who desperately needed a win after failing to get one in his previous seven starts. The right-hander did manage to earn his first win since June 5, but it wasn’t exactly pretty. He lasted just five innings and threw a whopping 95 pitches as he continued to experience command issues that have been plaguing him in recent weeks.

Nola gave up eight hits and three runs. He walked three and hit a batter. That’s not Aaron Nola’s game. At least it wasn’t in his first 12 starts this season. He recorded a 2.65 ERA over that span and walked just 15 while striking out 85. He has walked 14 in his last eight starts.

“He's not the same guy,” Mackanin said. “He's just struggling with command once again. He's not dotting his fastball like he normally does. His curveball is erratic. He needs to get back on track.

“Sometimes it's harder to pitch when you have a big lead. You know you don't want to blow it. That can affect a pitcher as well. You have to have that mental toughness either way, whether it's a one-run game or an 8-0 game. You don't want to pitch poorly. There's a tendency, well, you have a five-run lead, should I throw more fastballs and challenge? But it was good to see he got a win. I'm happy for that. That should help him. He just needs to get to where he was. He's not there yet.”

Nola described his outing as “fairly OK,” which was probably right on. He got the win, but overall was not sharp. He allowed three runs in the fifth inning.

“I ran into some jams there,” he said. “I left some balls over the plate for them to hit. They took them the other way. The plan was to try to hit the outside part of the plate and they took it away.

“I feel like I have the command for the most part, but there’s some areas I still need to get better at and work to get better at.”

The Phillies used four relievers to close out the game. Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris pitched well. David Hernandez and Jeanmar Gomez did not. Gomez allowed three base runners and a run, but still managed to get the save. Hernandez allowed a hit and a pair of two-out walks before giving up an RBI double. A number of scouts from teams looking for bullpen help were on hand. Hernandez and Gomez probably did not help their trade value. Four days before the deadline, starter Jeremy Hellickson is still the Phillie most likely to be dealt.

Best of MLB: Sale loses in White Sox return, Chapman saves Cubs' 3-1 win

Best of MLB: Sale loses in White Sox return, Chapman saves Cubs' 3-1 win

CHICAGO -- Chris Sale returned from his jersey-trashing suspension and threw six effective innings, but John Lackey outpitched him and Aroldis Chapman got the final four outs to save the Cubs' 3-1 victory over the White Sox in Chicago's rivalry series Thursday night.

Sale (14-4) was greeted with smiles and hugs from his teammates following a five-day ban for tearing up 1976-style uniforms he didn't want to wear before his previous scheduled start. He had command issues, but worked out of trouble while allowing two runs and six hits.

Lackey (8-7) allowed one run in six innings for his first win since June 8. Chapman, in his second appearance since being acquired from the Yankees, struck out two and consistently hit 102 mph in his first save for his new team.

Kris Bryant, who homered against Sale in the All-Star Game, hit an RBI double off the center field wall in the first inning (see full recap). 

Diaz's homer helps Cardinals beat Marlins and Fernandez, 5-4
MIAMI -- Aledmys Diaz homered, doubled and drove in three runs against childhood pal Jose Fernandez, helping the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Miami Marlins 5-4 Thursday.

Fernandez gave up five runs in five innings and fell to 26-2 at Marlins Park.

Miami's Dee Gordon, the 2015 NL batting and stolen bases champion, returned from an 80-game suspension for failing a drug test and went 0 for 4. Ichiro Suzuki doubled as a pinch hitter in the seventh for Miami and needs two hits for 3,000.

Diaz and Matt Holliday homered in the third inning against Fernandez (12-5), who had never previously given up more than one homer in a home game. His only other loss at Marlins Park came on opening day this year against Detroit.

Michael Wacha (6-7) allowed three runs in six innings, and three relievers completed an eight-hitter. Seung Hwan Oh pitched around a one-out single in the ninth for his seventh save (see full recap). 

Familia falters again, Rockies rally for 2-1 win over Mets
NEW YORK -- Mets steady closer Jeurys Familia stumbled for a second straight game, allowing two runs in the ninth inning as the Colorado Rockies beat New York 2-1 Thursday for their seventh win in eight games.

Less than 24 hours after Familia's streak of 52 consecutive regular-season saves was snapped, the right-hander entered in the top of the ninth with a 1-0 lead, and couldn't hold it.

Trevor Story had a leadoff single and stole second. After fellow rookie David Dahl walked, Daniel Descalso bunted up the first base line. Mets catcher Rene Rivera watched as the ball spun toward foul territory but it stopped fair, loading the bases with no out.

With one out, Familia (2-3) got pinch-hitter Cristhian Adames to hit a slow grounder to the right side. First baseman James Loney booted the ball and Story scored to make it 1-all. Familia then threw a wild pitch, allowing Dahl to cross the plate with the go-ahead run (see full recap).