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.

Union-Sporting Kansas City 5 things: Looking for back-to-back wins

Union-Sporting Kansas City 5 things: Looking for back-to-back wins

Union vs. Sporting Kansas City
7 p.m. on TCN, Pregame Live at 6:30

The Union kept afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race last weekend by completing the season sweep of the Columbus Crew. Now, they have an opportunity to do something they’ve only done once this season — win back-to-back games. The Union (10-9-7) face Sporting Kansas City (11-11-5) Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup.

1. Rookie power
In a surprising move, Union manager Jim Curtin tapped Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers to accompany Keegan Rosenberry as starters on the road against the Crew. 

And the 2016 MLS SuperDraft trio, starting for the first time together, didn’t disappoint. 

“If you were to tell me before the game started that we’d get goals from Herbers and Rosenberry, I would probably tell you you were a little crazy,” Curtin said. “But we’re happy for them. I think it’s a big step in a tough atmosphere.”

Herbers opened the scoring for the Union by powering home a deflection off his own original shot. The goal was followed by a Rosenberry game-winning goal from a Tranquillo Barnetta pass into the box. 

“For Keegan, for Josh, for Herbers to step up the way they did in what I would call a big boy game, I think it shows them growing as players,” Curtin said. “It’s a real game out there where a team is fighting and is desperate to make a playoff push, we had to be alert for 90 minutes.”

The three had such an impact on last Saturday’s match that Curtin is likely to go to the kids again against SKC. Herbers made the start in place of Ilsinho, who is currently fighting off a foot injury.

“We’re a club that trusts young players and believes in playing young players,” Curtin said. “They rewarded us.” 

2. Bedoya’s impact
Although he won’t make the scoresheet, in three games, Alejandro Bedoya has impressed Curtin with his poise in the midfield and big-game calmness with the ball. 

“To think he’s in his preseason now is a scary thing,” said Curtin, who has played Bedoya 90 minutes in his last two games. “Three great performances and it’s only going to get better. I can’t say enough positives about him.”

What Curtin likes the most is Bedoya’s ability to keep possession and relax the game, something that helps a club overflowing with young players. 

“He has been a great influence on us keeping possession,” Curtin said. “It’s the simple balls that don’t show up in the stat sheet, where he catches it and just plays it to our outside back. That gives us time to catch our breath — it’s so valuable.”

SKC has noticed it, too. 

“They added a very good player, someone with a lot of experience and commitment to the game, especially in the midfield” SKC coach Peter Vermes said. “He poses a problem for any team they play against. For us, we have to be compact, we have to be smart and we have to take our chances really well.”

3. Tired SKC
The Union are catching Sporting Kansas City at the right time. Vermes’ club is winded after just one home match in its last seven. 

“We’ve had a lot of travel these last couple weeks, so going into this Philly game we want to conserve as much energy as possible,” SKC’s Benny Feilhaber said. “They are a really good team this year, so we’ll have our hands full. But we’re confident we can go in and get something out of it.” 

And the club has a right to be tired. In 11 days from Saturday’s match, SKC will have played in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, home at Children’s Mercy Park, then away at BC Place against the Vancouver Whitecaps, before traveling cross-country to face the Union.

“Every game is very important, so we have to be able to give everything we’ve got, even though we’re running on fumes a little bit here,” Vermes said. “We’re going to have to dig down deep and muster up something with Philadelphia being as good as they are.” 

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: It doesn’t appear that Ilsinho will return in time for Saturday’s match, leaving Herbers as a starter on the right side of the midfield. He has two goals and four assists in five starts this season.

SKC: Although Dom Dwyer has four goals in his last five matches, Feilhaber has the ability to get everyone involved. The veteran midfielder has a goal and three assists in his last four matches.

5. This and that
• The Union are 4-5-4 against SKC all-time and an even 2-2-2 at home. 

• Despite being in playoff position, the Union have yet to win back-to-back games more than once this season. The only time they’ve claimed consecutive wins was on March 12 and March 20. And that started with a win over the Crew. 

• Each scoring a goal against the Crew, Rosenberry and Herbers were the first two rookies to score in a match since Colorado Rapids’ Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers did it in 2013. 

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Hellickson, Phils have chance to play spoilers

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Hellickson, Phils have chance to play spoilers

Phillies (59-69) at Mets (65-63)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

Both the Mets and Phillies go into the second game of the series with their best (healthy) starter on the mound. Noah Syndergaard, known by many as "Thor," takes the hill while trying to keep the Mets' playoff hopes alive, while Jeremy Hellickson makes the 26th start of his rebound season. 

Here are five things to know before Saturday night's matchup.

1. Playing spoilers
If the Mets want to make the playoffs in 2016 and reprise 2015's run to the World Series, they're gonna have to go through the Phillies. 

Not in the playoffs of course. But in the regular season.

After losing Friday night, the Phillies are six games back of the Mets and 10 games back of a playoff spot. They're not going to the postseason, barring a miracle.

But the Mets still have every intent to compete for a wild-card spot despite injuries all over the place (see point No. 2). They have the second-easiest schedule the rest of the way (Nationals have the easiest) and that is in large part thanks to games remaining against the Braves … and the Phillies.

Including Saturday night's game, the Mets and Phillies have nine games left against each other this season. That's more than enough to affect the Mets' postseason chances. The Mets are just 6-4 against the Phillies so far this year and will need to be much better in the final nine games to make a legitimate run.

But the Phillies can also spoil other teams' postseason chances. They have six games left against the Marlins and four games vs. the Pirates. This doesn't even mention the seven games with the Nationals, who are fighting for homefield advantage in the first round of the playoffs while holding a comfy lead in the NL East. 

2. Laying down the hammer
Matt Harvey is out for the year. Steven Matz is having shoulder issues and is on the disabled list. Jonathon Niese, newly reaquired, was injured four batters into his Tuesday start. Zack Wheeler seems far away from returning from Tommy John surgery. And to top all of it, Jacob deGrom's next start will be skipped to work on mechanical issues.

So that leaves Friday's starter, Bartolo Colon, and Syndergaard as the Mets' only experienced starters still on turn in the rotation at the moment. Certainly not how the Mets drew it up.

While this shows the perils of building around pitching, there is still the one shining ray of hope: Syndergaard. The righty flamethrower had his bumps in the road, his non-ace like starts, but for the most part, he's been just as advertised. 

Here's a telling stat: Syndergaard has made 24 starts and only in three has he given up more than three runs. As electric as he was as a 22-year-old rookie last year (3.24 ERA with 166 strikeouts in 24 starts), he's been even more so this year. He's given up more hits in almost the same number of innings, but he's limited home runs and struck out more batters. 

Overall, he has an 11-7 record and a 2.61 ERA. His 5.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio is one of the best marks in baseball and so is his 0.5 home runs per nine innings this year. With a hit-or-miss offense and a struggling middle relief corps, Syndergaard continues to carry the Mets to some modicum of playoff contention.

3. Hellickson re-established
It's been said and written plenty of times, but Hellickson was a clear reclamation project when the Phillies acquired him in the offseason. 

He hadn't pitched to an ERA below 4.52 since 2012, his second full season in baseball. His velocity had fallen after a shoulder injury and the righty based mostly on command was beginning to give up way too many hits. The Tampa Bay Rays, the team that drafted him, dealt him and after one year, the Diamondbacks gave up on him, too.

But in five months with the Phillies, Hellickson has re-established himself as the pitcher he was before. His hits per nine innings have improved back to their 2012 numbers and he has lowered his walk rate while keeping his strikeouts at a career high rate. 

So for the first time in four years, Hellickson is an above-average MLB pitcher. Besides pushing back his last start, he's been consistently pitching every fifth game, one of the few constants for the Phillies' rotation. He's thrown 150 innings, his most since 2013 and he has a month left.

And he's now won four straight decisions. The Phils have won his last six starts and he's given up three or fewer runs in each one. While he is putting himself in line for a big payday in the offseason, the Phillies are certainly happy with the production they've gotten from the 29-year-old righty.

4. Battle of the bullpens
Based on ERA, the Phillies and Mets have had two of the five worst bullpens in baseball since the All-Star break. Yet it's been for very different reasons.

For the Phillies, it's simple: The rotation has been in disarray. Even the guys who've been healthy have simply failed to get far into games. Hellickson is the only starter to complete at least seven innings since the break and even he hasn't done it more than the one time. 

If the starters weren't giving length but were giving the bullpen leads on a consistent basis, Pete Mackanin could go to his top relievers like Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez, who have been pretty steady despite a recent hiccup by Gomez against the Cardinals. But they haven't been given many leads and that has meant mop-up relievers. 

So with the long reliever getting more of the innings, it's easy to see why the Phils' pen has the fifth-worst ERA (4.52) of any MLB bullpen since the break. 

But what's been the Mets' problem to cause a 4.74 ERA, second worst in the second half? It's a little more complicated. First, they've had some of the same issues as the Phillies. Starters either getting hurt (Niese) or struggling and having to exit early leads to same results as the Phillies. 

Yet it's also the back-end relievers struggling. Although he's had a good August, Jeurys Familia has blown three saves since the break after none before the break. Jerry Blevins has been slightly worse since the break. And Hansel Robles, a key cog in middle relief, has a 6.41 ERA in the second half. 

The mop-up relievers have done a lot of the damage, but the Mets' back end isn't as steady as it needs to be. 

5. This and that
• Syndergaard beat the Phillies in April at Citziens Bank Park. He held the Phils to just one run over seven innings and struck out eight batters. He gave up just five hits and two walks.

• Hellickson has made three starts against the Mets this year and is 1-1. He got a win at Citi Field on April 10 by allowing just two runs in 5⅔ innings. He got a no-decision after allowing 10 hits and four runs in 4⅓ 10 days later. Hellickson was beat up in his first start after the break, losing to the Mets in a six-inning start on July 15. He gave up four runs on seven hits and two home runs in that game.

• Ryan Howard is 2 for 7 against Syndergaard with a home run and two walks in nine plate appearances. Odubel Herrera is 1 for 9 with an RBI single. 

• Curtis Granderson has faced Hellickson more than any other Mets batter thanks to their time with the Yankees and Rays, respectively. In 29 plate appearances, he is 5 for 25 with a home run, two walks, seven strikeouts and two hit-by-pitches.

• Yoenis Cespedes is 5 for 12 against Hellickson with two home runs and a walk. 

Report: Eagles to work out Darius Reynolds, Jake Mentz on Monday

Report: Eagles to work out Darius Reynolds, Jake Mentz on Monday

Fresh off a 56-42 win in Arena Bowl XXIX, the Soul could be losing two key players.

To the Eagles.

According to ESPN's Adam Caplan, the Eagles are scheduled to work out wide receiver Darius Reynolds and defensive lineman Jake Mentz, two key contributors from the Soul, on Monday.

During the 2016 regular season, Reynolds had 112 catches for 1,447 yards and 38 touchdowns, while Metz led the team with eight sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

The Eagles have 84 on their roster heading into Saturday night's game, but must be down to 75 players by 4 p.m. on Aug. 30 and then down to 53 by 4 p.m. on Sept. 3.