Sixers Handle Hawks: What Kind of Team Is This, Anyway?

Sixers Handle Hawks: What Kind of Team Is This, Anyway?

I was watching at halftime of ESPN's broadcast of the Knicks-Celtics
game from Friday on my DV-R, and they were reviewing highlights of the
Heat's close-for-three-quarters-turned-blowout win of the Sixers. One of
the commentators—maybe Jon Barry, I can't remember which one, they all
kind of suck—scoffed to one of the others (maybe Michael Wilbon) about
the Sixers: "I thought you said they were contenders?" Maybe-Wilbon had
no real recourse, except to sigh "Bad matchup."

This is sort of
how I feel right now with the Sixers. Last night, the Liberty Ballers
went to Atlanta to play the 16-7 Hawks, and they won handily, leading by
double digits for almost the entirety of the second half and leaving
with a 98-87 victory. (Sorry Sixers fans chilling at the WFC for some
reason, no Big Macs.) And it wasn't the win that impressed me so much,
but how unsurprising it was—I legitimately expected Philly to fly to
Atlanta on the second night of a back to back and show that they were
the better team. Which they did. Which they are. And then it occurs to
me—how many teams are out there now that I wouldn't feel confident with
the Sixers playing? Sure, I'd be a little nervous against the Thunder or
Clippers (the latter of whom we'll be seeing soon enough), but I'd
still think their chances are decent. Really, there are no teams left at
this point at which a Sixers win could legitimately be seen as
unexpected.

Except for the Heat.

The one test that the Sixers
have yet to pass, one which they don't appear particularly close to
passing anytime soon, is to Beat the friggin' Heat—Philly has now twice
played them about even for 30-36 minutes, yet completely lost their
handle in the final twelve minutes, finishing with final scores that
indicate a pretty wide gap between the two teams. And that gap, while
perhaps exaggerated by the final scores, is certainly no mirage—the Heat
are a better basketball team than we are, and will win the great
majority of the games the two teams play.

And yet—is that really
it? If the Heat are so much better than we are, how come they're just a
half-game higher than us in the standings? How did they lose to the
Bucks twice? How did they blow three straight road games on the West
Coast? Could it really be that, as maybe-Wilbon says, the Heat are just
an unfavorable matchup? It's true that with Wade and LeBron, they
nullify our biggest competitive advantage (our wing defense) somewhat,
and that our biggest weakness (post play, interior defense/rebounding)
is exposed somewhat with Chris Bosh and the team's endless reserve of
tall, high-energy rebounders. (Not to mention that we still haven't even
played them with Spencer Hawes and Nik Vucevic, our team's top two big
men, for a full game, and you saw their value last night, as we have all
season.)

So maybe the Sixers aren't that much worse a
team than the Heat, but just might not ever have much success against
them team-to-team. Does that alone mean that they're not considerable as
contenders in the NBA this year? Well...unfortunately, yeah, sorta.
It's hard to imagine a road to the finals that doesn't in some way lead
through Miami—unless Indiana knocked them off in the second round (or if
Milwaukee can repeat their shocking success in an eight-seed upset),
Philly will undoubtedly have to play them in the second or third round
of the Conference playoffs, assuming they get that far. In the '90s, how
many title contenders might there have been in the East if not for the
Jordan/Pippen/Jackson Bulls? But you can't hide from those guys forever,
and it's hard to consider the Sixers a legit title contender until they
have some legitimate level of success against them.

But anyway,
back to the Atlanta game, which turned out pretty cool. We finally got
both our young centers back, though we had to trade Elton Brand for 'em,
since EB was out with a sore thumb, giving rookie Lavoy Allen his
first-ever NBA start, though he only actually played 12 minutes. Hawes,
Vucevic and Allen between them scored 33 points on stunning 16 of 23
shooting, showing what an impressive roster of skilled big men this team
has assembled. There's still some work to go with these guys—the trio
grabbed just 12 rebounds between them and didn't even attempt a free
throw, which is pretty bad for three frontcourt players in 64 combined
minutes of game action—but man, am I glad to finally have all of them at
our disposal at once.

The bench was the big story last night,
as all four subs (including Vucevic with a team-high 15) scored in
double-digits. Evan Turner had a very nice game after some uninspiring
outings against Miami, Chicago and Orlando, scoring 11 points on 5-7
shooting—including a chuckle-worthy three that started out as an
alley-oop pass—with six rebounds and five assists. Perhaps more
importantly, he seemed to learn his lessons on defense from the team's
last game against Atlanta, where Tracy McGrady abused him one-on-one,
getting cheap fouls on The Extraterrestrial and out-maneuvering him for
easy buckets. This time, he played back on T-Mac and turned him
primarily into a distributor, holding him to seven points on 2-6
shooting, and not letting him impose his will on the game. Encouraging
moments from our second-year project.

Elswehere on the Night
Shift, Thaddeus Young continued his run of tremendous offensive play
with 14 points, five boards and even three assists, and Lou Williams
also contributed 14 and five dimes, hitting the game-clinching shot with
just over a minute to go. And also due some cred to two members of our
starting lineup—first, Jodie Meeks, who connected on a pair of threes
and now has hit multiple treys in seven of his last eight games, on pace
for a better year shooting from deep than any Sixer has had since Kyle
Korver. And then, of course, Andre Iguodala, whose All-Star push
continues with another near triple-double—nine points, eight rebounds
and ten assists, with just a single turnover. 'Dre is probably happier
than anyone to have Vuc and Hawes back, since both bigs play the
pick-and-pop so beautifully with our point forward, and his feeds were
damn on the money last night. (We'll let the 3-15 shooting slide for
now, since it wasn't really needed last night anyway).

So yeah, a nice road win for the Sixers, who 24 games into the season,
have still yet to lose consecutive games—a real testament to the team's
character and toughness, and one that the
increasingly-difficult-to-please Coach Collins had to salute after the
game. ("This was our fourth game in six nights and with the emotional
game with
Miami last night, I can't tell you how proud I am of the guys.") But as
good as the win is, it doesn't shake the pall cast from Friday's
discouraging home loss to the Heat, and no matter how they do on the
remainder of this tough stretch (even though by starting 3-1, they've
already done better than many might have predicted beforehand), the only
thing that's going to completely erase that bitterness is a win—or at
the very least, four good quarters of play—when they meet the Heat for a
third time on March 16th. Until then, it's still a great season, but
it's not one that anyone will mistake for being championship-bound.

Next up for the Ballers: Monday night at home against the Los Angeles
Lakers. A win over Kobe and co. will exorcise a couple demons, even if
it might not mean as much as it would have a couple years back when the
Lake Show was at the peak of its powers. All we can do now is play the
games on our schedule, keeping posting good results against good times,
and hope that the sting of the two tough Miami losses fuels the team to
an even more determined level of play. We'll see 'em again soon enough.

Eagles' QB-rich support system for Carson Wentz paying dividends

Eagles' QB-rich support system for Carson Wentz paying dividends

In the wake of the Sam Bradford trade, the Eagles' announcement a week before the opener that Carson Wentz would start Week 1 was met with some skepticism and overwhelmingly tempered expectations.

But it looks like the kid can play.

And the Eagles aren’t just looking smart for drafting and playing Wentz. They’re also looking pretty smart for filling their coaching staff and quarterback room with decades of quarterback experience.

“It's a tight room,” head coach Doug Pederson said.

It’s also a knowledgeable one.

Pederson is a former NFL quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich is a former NFL quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo is a former college quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. And backup Chase Daniel has been in the league since 2009 and in Pederson’s offense since 2013.

If Wentz has a question, he has plenty of guys to ask. And it seems like this support system, which at one time looked like overkill, might be one of the keys that has allowed the rookie to take the NFL by storm.

“There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt,” the veteran backup Daniel said. “Obviously, he’s a very bright young mind, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the coaching in the quarterback room has played a good part into his maturation and his bringing along so fast. There’s no doubt about it.”

Through three games, Wentz has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 769 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. He's the first rookie in NFL history to put up those numbers in the first three games of a career. Oh yeah, and the Eagles are 3-0.

It’s hard to believe that about a month ago, Wentz was gearing up for a redshirt year as the third quarterback behind Sam Bradford and Daniel. Now, he isn’t just the future franchise quarterback. He is the franchise quarterback.

And Wentz gives his quarterback-heavy coaching staff plenty of credit.

“It’s huge having them,” Wentz said. “I could never say enough how much they understand the game. They get it. They know what it’s like. As a former quarterback, they know what I’m going through and how I’m seeing things, so it’s been huge.”

The Eagles were clearly smitten with Wentz from the time they saw him in Alabama for the Senior Bowl. Eventually, de facto GM Howie Roseman was able to maneuver to the No. 2 pick to draft Wentz.

But Wentz went No. 2 and not No. 1, so it’s almost impossible to not peek over at Los Angeles and see how first overall pick Jared Goff is doing. So far, he isn’t doing much of anything. It doesn’t mean that eventually Goff won’t be a good quarterback, but through three games, he’s been inactive once and hasn’t yet played. The Rams are sticking with Case Keenum for now.

NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling compared the support system for Goff with the Rams and Wentz's with the Eagles. We’ll take a deeper look into what he started:

Rams
• Head coach Jeff Fisher: Defensive coach

• OC Rob Boras: Never a QB coach; coached tight ends in NFL from 2004-15

• QB Coach Chris Weinke: Former NFL QB for seven seasons; was highly-thought of QB draft guru with IMG academy for four years

• Vet QB Case Keenum: In league since 2012; best QB he's played with is Matt Schaub

Eagles
• Head coach Doug Pederson: 12 years as NFL QB; QB coach in Philly; OC in KC

• OC Frank Reich: 14 years as NFL QB; QB coach in Indy with Peyton Manning in 2009-10; QB coach and OC in San Diego

• QB Coach: John DeFilippo: College QB; QBs coach at Fordham, Columbia; QBs coach with Raiders, Jets, OC with Browns

• Vet QB Chase Daniel: In league since 2009; learned under Drew Brees; has been in Pederson's offense since 2013

It’s very possible if Wentz becomes a great quarterback that other teams copy the Eagles’ quarterback-heavy approach.

But it’s not just about getting a bunch of smart people and a talented rookie in the same room. Everything else has to work. The rookie has to be a diligent learner and all of the teachers have to check their egos and work together.

“I let John (DeFilippo), I let the quarterback coach run the meeting,” Pederson said. “If I interject, I interject. The way it works is I send my message through Frank (Reich), Frank through the position coaches. At the same time, if I want to interject something, I will interject. Just making sure there's one voice in the meeting room and they are not hearing three different answers from three different people, the message is the same.”

Practice squad quarterback Aaron Murray, who joined the team a couple weeks ago, thinks the quarterback room has “definitely” helped Wentz achieve his early success. While he is just a practice-squader, go ahead and add Murray — who was in the offense for two years in Kansas City — to the list of quarterback minds happy to help Wentz.

Murray, a fifth-rounder out of Georgia in 2014, has been impressed with Wentz’s ability to pick up protections and schemes at a young age. He compared him to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in that regard. While Murray, along with everyone else, is happy to give Wentz tips, he tries to not overload him.

“You still want him to just go out there and play,” he said.

Murray is the newcomer to the room, but he’s been impressed with the dynamic so far. He’s not the only one. It looks like this quarterback experiment might just work.

“It’s awesome. It’s great,” Daniel said. “Everyone has a say in there and everyone in the room, it’s pretty crazy, everyone in the room, really except Carson, has been around it, has been in it and played. Obviously, he’s played, but been around for a while. He’s just a sponge, he’s just taking it all in.

“Maybe some stuff he doesn’t need to take in. Maybe some stuff he wants to do his own way, which is great. You want your own personality out there. But yeah, he’s been great. It’s been great for us too as players. We have almost a 2-to-1 coach-to-player ratio. It’s been great. Everyone has little tidbits here and there and we roll.”

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Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies’ bullpen continued its ugly, late-season collapse on Tuesday night. It was tagged for six runs in a 7-6 loss to the Atlanta Braves. The Braves rallied for the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth inning (see Instant Replay).
 
The loss came two days after the bullpen gave up 14 earned runs in four innings in a 17-0 loss to the New York Mets on Sunday and it left manager Pete Mackanin more than a little bit frustrated.
 
“The bullpen has just not been doing the job,” Mackanin said.
 
Jerad Eickhoff gave up just one run (on a solo homer by Freddie Freeman) over four walk-free innings to open the game. He was up 6-1 after four innings when the rains came and stopped the game for an hour and 53 minutes.
 
With Eickhoff bounced by the weather, Mackanin had to go to his bullpen. He used four relievers — Severino Gonzalez, Luis Garcia, Joely Rodriguez and David Hernandez — and all gave up runs.
 
Phillies relievers have pitched 77 1/3 innings this month and allowed 69 earned runs for an ERA of 8.03. So that’s one more thing Matt Klentak has to fix this winter, along with the offense that Mackanin wants to see addressed (see story).
 
Ultimately, Hernandez took the loss when he gave up three hits and a run in the bottom of the eighth. The other run in the inning was charged to Rodriguez.
 
As unbelievable as it may sound with rosters being expanded in September, the Phillies played this game shorthanded.
 
They did not have reliever Edubray Ramos. He had a sore elbow, Mackanin said.
 
They did not have outfielder Peter Bourjos, who had gone home to be with his wife for the birth of their child.
 
They also did not have outfielder Tyler Goeddel, who is out with a concussion.
 
Not having Bourjos or Goeddel forced Mackanin to use Darin Ruf in left field after Roman Quinn went out with an oblique injury in the sixth inning. Ruf failed to make a catch on a long fly ball by Tyler Flowers to the gap in left-center. The non-play extended the eighth inning and fueled the Braves’ comeback.
 
“It should have been caught,” Mackanin said. “If Quinn's out there, he catches it. He wasn't out there.”
 
Hernandez was the only free agent that the Phillies signed to a major-league contract this winter. The Phillies signed him with an eye toward using him as the closer. But Hernandez struggled much of the season and slipped into the middle innings while Ramos, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez rose to high-leverage roles.
 
Gomez lost the closer’s job last week and Mackanin was saving Neris to close out this game. That meant Hernandez had to pitch the eighth. He couldn’t protect the lead. He gave up the game-tying hit to Mallex Smith and the go-ahead hit to Emilio Bonafacio.
 
“Neris was going to close for us,” Mackanin said. “I thought about using him with two outs in the eighth. But, at some point, somebody else has to do a (bleeping) job. Somebody else has to (bleeping) step up. In two games now, every reliever I brought in has given up a (bleeping) run. That's unheard of.”
 
The bullpen’s unraveling threw cold (rain) water on Eickhoff’s solid start and Ryan Howard’s big night. Howard belted his 24th homer, a grand slam in the first inning, to highlight a 14-hit attack and help the Phils jump to a 6-0 lead.
 
“Eickhoff looked like he was having one of his best games and then the rain came. So that was our first disappointment,” Mackanin said. "Other than that, Howie swung the bat great. Hit that grand slam. We got 14 hits, but we stranded 12 runners. We have to keep adding on.”
 
Quinn had three of the Phillies’ 14 hits then added to his collection of injuries with the oblique strain that bounced him from the game in the sixth. He hurt himself taking a swing.
 
Oblique injuries generally keep a player sidelined for at least three weeks, so Quinn’s season is likely over. He missed six weeks with a similar injury at Double A Reading this summer. The 23-year-old outfielder came up from the minors on Sept. 11 and has been auditioning for a spot on next season’s opening day roster.
 
“It looks like it,” Mackanin said when asked if Quinn was done for what remains of the season.
 
Injuries have been a consistent hurdle for Quinn ever since he was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft. He has missed significant time with a ruptured Achilles tendon, a wrist injury that required surgery, a torn quad muscle and an oblique strain. Now he has another one.
 
“It’s the same one I hurt before,” Quinn said. “It’s frustrating.”
 
Right now, just about everything is frustrating with this team. Good thing there are only five games left.

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