So That Happened: Sixers Win (?) Game Three After Battling Back in Fourth

So That Happened: Sixers Win (?) Game Three After Battling Back in Fourth

"If there ever a time for the Sixers to win one BS, low-scoring close game..." tweeted
friend of the blog Where is Ben Rivera with about five minutes left in
this game. Indeed, recent history—including the last time the Bulls
played at the Wells Fargo Center—suggested that, injuries to Chicago
stars Derrick Rose and (now) Joakim Noah be damned, the Sixers were not
gonna find a way to take this game. Down 14 early in the fourth, they
would battle back, cut it to three or four, miss a couple crucial
jumpers or blow a couple key stops, and lose in unnecessarily
heartbreaking fashion. It's been the same story for as long as we can
remember as Sixers fans.

Yet, either due to genuine team
evolution or some working principle of how you Can't Lose 'Em All, the
Sixers did indeed find a way to take and hold the lead in this one. Jrue
Holiday (17 points, six rebounds, six assists) and Evan Turner (16 points, nine rebounds) were given the reins down the stretch and they
responded, scoring or assisting on 13 of the team's final 15 points in
the last five minutes, including going seven of eight form the line in
the final 90 seconds to seal the deal. Spencer Hawes also rebounded from
a tough start to the second half to finish with a team-high 21 points
and nine boards, and Philly was able to scratch out the W in an ugly
79-74 slugfest that not a lot of people outside of the City of Brotherly
Love are gonna have fond memories of watching.

Through
three-plus quarters, the outlook on this one was not good. The Sixers'
guards were playing solidly, if unspectacularly, but the frontcourt was a
total no-show. Through three quarters, the big-man rotation of Thaddeus
Young, Spencer Hawes, Elton Brand and Lavoy Allen were shooting a
combined 4-24, with the Old Schol Chevy Brand in particularly picking a
bad time to suffer engine failure, ending the game with 0 points (0-5
FG) and just two boards. Worse, they got killed by the Bulls on
the boards, resulting in a stretch of consecutive offensive rebounds in
the third and fourth that actually inspired boos from the WFC. Spencer
Hawes, while technically doing the best of the bench with his nine
points and six rebounds, had missed a series of good-look jumpers and
absurdly easy layups early in the half, leading me to wonder if Coach
Collins was gonna put him in the sleeper hold after yanking him to the
bench, and just have one of the assistants wake him up when the game
ended.

But the Sixers somehow managed to stay tough, and both
the shots and the offensive boards started to dry up for the Bulls after
Rip Hamilton's pull-up three put them up 14 with ten to go. Hawes
started converting on his chippies and jumpers, Jrue and Lou Williams
made plays, and all of a sudden, the team was back in the game. The team
defense just got tighter and tighter as the exhausted and undermanned
Bulls went totally cold, and suddenly, the team was up 72-71 with 90
seconds left and a chance to actually win this damn thing, for once.

What
happened next can be explained by a number of factors. For one
thing—and I feel this has to be acknowledged—they got a lot of help from
the refs, who had called a tight game the whole way, and whistled a
number of borderline calls on Chicago that I personally didn't toally
agree with. But this was systematic of the fact that the Sixers were
attacking the basket—especially Jrue and Evan, the duo of whom Coach
Collins finally entrusted with ball-handling and play-making
responsibilities down the stretch. The two forced the issue time and
time again, most notably when Evan Turner went down among the trees on
the clinching possession, rebounding his own miss twice and eventually
getting the foul call, in a play that Collins would later deem the "play
of the year" for the Sixers, calling Turner a "big-game player" in
turn.

It's hard to overstate just how encouraging this final
stretch was for the Sixers. At a certain point it occurred to me that I
didn't really even care if the Sixers won or lost—well, I cared, of
course, but I realized it wasn't the most important thing—because I was
just so glad that Collins finally handed the keys to the team over to
his two young bonafides, and so glad that they were rewarding his faith.
Lou wasn't even out there for the final stretch once Evan checked back
in, and after bricking an open three with 2:54 left that would've put
the team up two and brought the house down—as emblematic of 'Dre's
late-game futility as a shot could be—he was not asked to contribute on
offense again. This is Evan and Jrue's team now—finally—and that's far more important a development for this team than anything that could happen in this series.

So
hey, speaking of this series—it does bear mentioning that we're up 2-1
on the hurting Bulls now, with a chance to take a commanding 3-1 series
lead at the WFC again this Sunday. But as positive as things may seem at
the moment, and as much as we want to start eyeing the Celtics/Hawks
series to see who would make a more favorable second-hand matchup for
this team, let me remind you that this is not the first time we've been
in this situation as an underdog—we took similar leads against both
Orlando and Detroit, then proceeded to lose the next three games to
each. Now, this seems different, with the Bulls' best (and possibly
their second-best) player injured, and the Sixers clicking in some
importantw ays, but just because it seems different doesn't mean that it is different. Let's talk about that again after Game Four, shall we?

And
a final note, about that second-best Bulls player and the injury he
suffered tonight: You're probably going to hear a lot of crap over the
upcoming days about the way the Sixers fans reacted when Joakim Noah
brutally twisted his ankle on Andre Iguodala's foot in the open court,
and we cheered as he writhed on the floor in pain, booing when he
finally got back up. And we'll deserve most of it—it was a classless act
on the part of the WFC crowd, and names like "Michael Irvin" and "Santa
Claus" will be not wrongly invoked. But let's also keep in mind that
Noah is a historical NBA irritant, someone who takes pride in getting
under the skin of opponents and their fans, and while such methods are
All In the Game as far as the NBA is concerned...well, sometimes people
are going to take joy in your misery. No disrespect, and frankly, any
Sixer fan who doesn't have a great deal of admiration for how he hobbled
back onto that court after his injury and managed to hit a couple free
throws and a jumper before limping back off is simply out they damn
mind.

1:00 tip from Wells Fargo this Sunday for Game Four. Still
a ton of questions to be answered, still a whole lot undecided in this
series, but even if we lose the next three games, tonight was progress
in this team's evolution that can and should not be ignored. It might
not mean we're any closer to contending, but it means we're a lot closer
to understanding who we are as a team, and where to go from here, and
at this stage in the 76ers' development, that's nearly as important. Go
Jrue and Evan, go Coach Collins, go you marvelous bastard 76ers.

Reuben Frank's way-too-early 2016 Eagles predictions

Reuben Frank's way-too-early 2016 Eagles predictions

Will offensive linemen Jason Peters and Jason Kelce bounce back from disappointing seasons? Who will the Eagles’ top cornerback be? How many games will Carson Wentz start? Will the Eagles win a playoff game for the first time since 2008?

We take our best shot at these questions and many others facing the Eagles in our way-too-early 2016 predictions.

See you in the comments section!

1. I’ll start with Zach Ertz. He caught 75 passes for 853 yards last year, but I feel like he can do so much more. Sam Bradford and Ertz really clicked late last season, connecting 35 times for 450 yards the last four games of the year. Nobody can keep that up for an entire season, but I think this is finally the huge breakout season we’ve been expecting from Ertz since he got here in 2013.

THE PREDICTION: 90 catches for 1,089 yards.

2. Staying on offense, much has been made of Kelce’s sub-par season in 2015. It was strange to see Kelce, coming off a Pro Bowl season, apparently healthy and in the prime of his career, struggle the way he did. But I still think Kelce is an elite center. Yeah, he’s a little undersized, but he was undersized when he dominated in 2013 and made the Pro Bowl in 2014. He succeeds when he keeps his technique and uses his strength and leverage to overcome his lack of bulk. I think Kelce returns to form.

THE PREDICTION: A second Pro Bowl in three years for Kelce.

3. Sticking with the offensive line, I see Jason Peters also rebounding in 2016. Nobody benefited less than Peters from Chip Kelly’s full-speed, non-stop practices. His body broke down and when he was healthy enough to start, he often wasn’t healthy enough to finish. He made another Pro Bowl, but it was really a lost season for Peters. But with the hurry-up offense gone and a head coach who promises to take it easy on the older guys the way Reid did, there’s no reason Peters shouldn’t rebound.

THE PREDICTION: Peters returns to form and continues his late-career Hall of Fame push with his ninth Pro Bowl in 10 years, the only exception being the 2012 season he missed while rehabbing his torn Achilles.

4. I know he’s No. 3 now, but I’m just going on common sense, which says that if Sam Bradford gets hurt or gets benched, Carson Wentz and not Chase Daniel will replace him. Imagine if it’s Week 13 and Bradford hobbles off the field and Daniel – who has one career touchdown pass in six NFL seasons – jogs out to replace him? It would not be pretty. I say Wentz starts the last four games this year and plays fairly well.

THE PREDICTION: Wentz completes 61 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

5. I think Jordan Matthews is a good, solid, functional NFL wide receiver, but I don’t think there is a star in this wide receiver group. The Eagles last year were the only NFL team with just one wide receiver with 30 receptions, the first time that’s happened in 26 years (Cris Carter was the only one in 1989). And honestly, I don’t see the situation improving that much. Maybe Nelson Agholor or Josh Huff or Rueben Randle will surprise me, but I just feel like this wide receiving corps doesn’t have the oomph it needs to really compete at a high level.

THE PREDICTION: Matthews catches another 80 to 90 passes but nobody else emerges as a big-time second wide receiving threat, and the Eagles once again go into the offseason desperate for an over-the-top threat like DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin.

6. Moving to defense, I think when all is said and done, Eric Rowe will emerge as the Eagles’ No. 1 cornerback. I wonder about Leodis McKelvin’s ability at 31 years old to run the way a corner has to in a division with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Odell Beckham and Dez Bryant. Think of some Eagles corners who were 31 and older. Nnamdi. Charles Dimry. Roynell Young and Herm Edwards at the end. The only one who played at a high level at that age was Troy Vincent, and Leodis McKelvin is not Troy Vincent. I think Rowe will have his ups and downs, but, by the end of the year, he’ll be a solid NFL starter.

THE PREDICTION: Rowe leads the Eagles with five interceptions.

7. The Eagles have a lot of different guys who can rush the passer, and in Jim Schwartz’s scheme, there should be plenty of opportunities for them to attack the quarterback. Two years ago, Connor Barwin had 14 ½ sacks and Vinny Curry had 9 and last year Fletcher Cox had 9 ½ sacks and Brandon Graham had a career-high 6 ½. Now, this is a new world, with a 4-3 defense, and nobody is quite sure how all the pieces will fit together. But I do think the Eagles will be among the NFL leaders in sacks.

THE PREDICTION: The Eagles had 37 sacks last year and averaged just 41 during the Bill Davis Era, but I say they get 50 this year, which they’ve only done once since 2003 – in 2011 under defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

8. I’m less confident in the back seven, and I’m not convinced the Eagles have solved their pass defense issues. We’ve seen a lot of new faces come and go over the years – from DRC and Nnamdi to Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher – with nothing really changing. The Eagles are the only team in NFL history to allow 25 or more touchdown passes in seven straight years (after not allowing 25 passing TDs since 1989). Malcolm Jenkins is a beast, but a lot of question marks surround him in the defensive backfield.

THE PREDICTION: The Eagles extend their NFL record of allowing at least 25 touchdown passes to eight straight seasons.

9. This group of linebackers scares me. I feel like Mychal Kendricks has a ton of talent, but don’t think he’s ever put together the type of full season he’s capable of. I love what Jordan Hicks did the first half of last year, but I wonder if he can come close to repeating that or if he can stay healthy. Nigel Bradham? Not sure what he brings to the table. And behind that group there’s guys like Najee Goode, Deontae Skinner and Travis Long. There’s talent here, but it’s a precarious group.

THE PREDICTION: By the end of the season, only one of those three linebackers will still be in the starting lineup.

10. It’s silly to make a prediction for the season now, before we even know who’s on the team. But I’m going to do that anyway. I don’t think they’re that bad. But I don’t think they’re that good. I’m a Wentz guy and don’t think the Eagles are really going to accomplish anything substantial until Wentz is behind center. That said, I like Bradford more than most people. I think he’s an adequate NFL starter. But I don’t like his TD-INT ratio and don’t think he can generate enough points against good teams to get the Eagles beyond mediocre. I think the Eagles are missing the elite offensive weapons and defensive playmakers to be a playoff team. In this division, who knows? If the Eagles can go 4-2 in the division and scratch out five wins in their 10 games out of the gate, it could be enough to win the NFC East. But ultimately, I think they’ll fall short. Too many question marks. Too many areas that just aren’t good enough. Too many unknowns with Doug Pederson. The Eagles haven’t won a playoff game in seven years and I fear that number will increase to eight this year.

THE PREDICTION: Eagles go 7-9 this year and finish two games behind the Redskins in the NFC East.

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Young flamethrowers duel in rubber match

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Young flamethrowers duel in rubber match

Phillies (45-54) vs. Pirates (50-47)
1:35 p.m. on CSN

A poor start from Aaron Nola gave the Pirates the second game of this three-game set, so the series comes down to Sunday. Both teams will toss out one of their top young pitchers with Vince Velasquez going for the Phillies and Jameson Taillon for the Pirates. 

Five things to know before the Sunday afternoon tilt.

1. Re-examining the Phillies bullpen
With a week to go before the trade deadline, let's take a look at how the Phillies' bullpen has performed before it may lose a piece or two by Aug. 1. 

Over the last 30 days, the bullpen as a whole has been middle of the pack, ranking 17th in MLB with a 4.19 ERA but third in baseball with a 3.18 FIP (fielding-independent pitching). That indicates that the 'pen has done a good job of limiting walks and home runs while striking out enough batters and may just be the victim of bad batted ball luck.

In fact, the bullpen has the second-best walk rate (2.22 per nine innings) in MLB over the last month while it is sixth with a HR rate of 0.74 per nine inning. Could the bullpen be getting better and just need some better luck on balls in play? 

Now to the individual players. The three most intriguing players on the trade market are closer Jeanmar Gomez, set-up man Hector Neris and middle reliever David Hernandez. 

Gomez and Neris appear to have taken legitimate steps forward this year. Gomez has a 2.13 ERA over his last 12 games, spanning 12 2/3 innings. Neris meanwhile has a 2.31 ERA in his last 12 games and has struck out over one batter an inning during that span, continuing to excel with his splitter.

Hernandez, signed to possibly take the closer role in the offseason, hasn't quite hit the stride some would have hoped for. He has struck out 11 batters over his last 10 innings, but he has given up nine hits and six walks during that time, allowing more than 1.5 baserunners per inning. 

Edubray Ramos has been used a fair amount over the last four weeks, making 12 appearances. He has a high ERA to show for it (5.06) however despite showing good overall stuff.

2. Pitching duel of the future?
Both the Pirates and Phillies send two potential righty aces to the mound Sunday in hopes of taking the rubber match of the mid-July series. First, a look into Jameson Taillon, who the Pirates drafted 2nd overall in the 2010 MLB draft.

Once a top 10 prospect in all of baseball, Taillon missed all of 2014 and 2015 with Tommy John surgery and a sports hernia, respectively. The 24-year-old made his MLB debut in June and has become a solid part of the Pirates' rotation.

In his short time in the majors, he's made six starts, going 2-1 with a 3.44 ERA. He's walked just five batters in 34 innings. However, he's also given up four home runs and 35 hits. 

Similar to Saturday's starter, Tyler Glasnow, Taillon is a tall righty who can throw the ball in the upper 90s. At 6-foot-5, he's can be overpowering while bringing a strong curveball that he utilizes as his main off-speed pitch.

Opposing Taillon is arguably the Phillies' best starter this year. Velasquez was drafted in the second round of that same 2010 draft. As he has all season, he continues to overpower hitters with his velocity and repertoire, fanning 98 batters this year. His 3.15 ERA and eight wins are best among the Phillies' young starters.

His last start was his fourth since returning from the disabled list, and he has allowed two or fewer runs in each start. He allowed just one run to the Marlins on Tuesday, giving up three hits and four walks in seven innings. Pitching deep into games like he did vs. Miami is the next frontier for the 24-year-old flamethrower.

3. Appreciating Tommy Joseph's July
Since he was called up for his debut in May, Tommy Joseph has shown flashes of brilliance with the bat. 

However, June was rough for the rookie. He batted just .204 and walked just two times while striking out in 23 of his 96 plate appearances. Sure, he hit five home runs, but when he wasn't hitting for power, he was doing little else.

That has changed in his 15 games this July. He's already hit five homers in just over half the plate appearances and walked six times. The walks are key. He's never been one to draw all that many walks even in the minors, so it shows he may be taking another step in his development. 

In all, he has 17 hits and 10 runs scored in just 44 at-bats and 12 starts this month. He's raised his average to .264 and has a slugging percentage of .529.

He has not only shown that he can mash, which was already an assumption, but also that he can work at-bats and make things happen even when the ball isn't leaving the yard. He's looking more and more like building block.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Cesar Hernandez has quietly hit over .300 in June and July, hitting single after single near the bottom of the order. His two hits and two RBIs pushed the Phillies ahead early in Saturday's loss.

Pirates: Josh Harrison, the opposing second baseman, has had the opposite situation in the last two months. After batting over .325 in April and May, he's hit .218 or worse in the last two months. His season average is down to .270 and his OPS is just .673.

5. This and that
• David Freese has the only prior plate appearance against Velasquez. He's 0 for 1 against him. No Phillies, as one could guess, have at-bats against Taillon in the majors.

• The Phillies haven't won a series against the Pirates since 2013. 

• Pirates closer Mark Melancon has a 1.10 ERA against the Phillies in 15 career appearances. It's his second best ERA against a team he's faced at least 10 times. (He has a 0.63 ERA against the Marlins in 16 games).

Best of MLB: Nelson Cruz drives in 7 as Mariners pummel Blue Jays

Best of MLB: Nelson Cruz drives in 7 as Mariners pummel Blue Jays

TORONTO -- Nelson Cruz hit his ninth career grand slam and added a three-run shot, and Hisashi Iwakuma pitched six innings to win his fifth straight start in Seattle's victory over Toronto.

Cruz hit his slam off R.A. Dickey (7-11) in the third, then added a three-run drive off Drew Storen in the eighth for his 20th career multi-homer game. He has 25 home runs this season.

It was the 13th time in team history a Mariners player has recorded seven RBIs. The team record is eight by Mike Blowers, Mike Cameron and Alvin Davis.

Kyle Seager hit a two-run homer and Nori Aoki had two RBIs and scored twice as the Mariners used a season-high 19 hits to win their third straight. Iwakuma (11-6) allowed two runs and four hits.

Wade LeBlanc pitched the final three innings for his first save (see full recap).

Stanton leads Marlins past Mets
MIAMI -- Giancarlo Stanton homered and had his first four-hit game since 2012, driving in three runs to give Jose Fernandez all the support he needed, and Miami beat New York.

Miami rocked Jacob deGrom (6-5), who allowed 10 hits and five runs, both season highs, and lasted just 3 2/3 innings in his shortest outing since August.

Fernandez (12-4) gave up two runs in seven innings to match his career high for victories, achieved in his 2013 rookie season. He also had two hits, hiking his average to .265, and drove in the first run.

Home Run Derby winner Stanton put Miami ahead to stay in the third inning when he hit a majestic two-run homer off the left-field scoreboard above the 401-foot sign. He added an RBI single in the fourth, and singled in the first and sixth, hiking his average to .241 after a prolonged slump (see full recap).  

Dodgers snap Cardinals' 5-game win streak
ST. LOUIS -- Adrian Gonzalez hit his eighth homer, red-hot Justin Turner got two more RBIs and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat St. Louis 7-2 on Saturday night to end the Cardinals' five-game winning streak.

Turner's two-run double capped a four-run third. He has 14 RBIs since the All-Star break.

Gonzalez's 429-foot solo blast to center sparked a three-run sixth.

Kenta Maeda (9-7) rebounded from a poor outing against Arizona on July 17, giving up two runs over 5 2/3 innings. Only one of the Cardinals' first 15 batters was able to hit the ball out of the infield against the Japanese right-hander.

Andrew Toles went 3 for 4 and scored once for the Dodgers. He has reached safely in nine of 10 games since being called up from the minors.

Mike Leake (7-8) allowed seven runs -- six earned -- in six innings.

Matt Adams homered for the second consecutive game. His blast to left in the fourth extended the Cardinals' streak of home runs to 14 straight games.

Aledmys Diaz reached safely for the 26th straight game with a first-inning single. Diaz's streak is the second-longest by a Cardinals rookie since Albert Pujols had streaks of 30 and 48 games in 2001 (see full recap).

Drew's walk-off triple lifts Nats past Padres
WASHINGTON -- Pinch-hitter Stephen Drew hit a game-ending RBI triple in the ninth inning to lift Washington past San Diego,

Anthony Rendon opened the bottom off the ninth with a single off reliever Kevin Quackenbush (6-4). Drew entered with one out and drove a pitch off the center-field scoreboard, and Rendon raced around the bases for the winning run.

Jonathan Papelbon (2-2) allowed a leadoff double in the ninth before retiring three straight batters. San Diego left runners in scoring position in each of the last two innings.

Washington starter Max Scherzer struck out 10 over seven innings (see full recap).

Giants top Yanks in extras to snap losing skid
NEW YORK -- Mac Williamson homered in the fifth inning and hit a tiebreaking single in the 12th, lifting San Francisco past New York for the Giants' first victory since the All-Star break.

NL West-leading San Francisco had lost a season-high six straight games and had held just one lead since the break -- when Buster Posey hit a go-ahead home run leading off the 10th inning at San Diego on July 16 only to have the Padres rally for a pair of runs in the bottom half against Santiago Casilla.

Williamson, whose fourth-inning error allowed the Yankees' run, began the comeback when he connected off Ivan Nova leading off the fifth.

Trevor Brown hit an opposite-field double to right off Anthony Swarzak (1-1) leading off the 12th, and Williamson singled up the middle with one out, just past the glove of diving shortstop Didi Gregorius. San Francisco was 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position, dropping to 7 for 64 (.111) since the All-Star break, before Williamson's single.

Cheered on by hundreds of orange-clad fans in the Giants' old hometown, San Francisco escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the 10th when Casilla (2-3) retired Brian McCann on a shallow flyout and Starlin Castro on a foulout. Hunter Strickland pitched a perfect 12th for his second save (see full recap).