Still In This Thing: Sixers Look to Stay Afloat in Atlantic Against Orlando

Still In This Thing: Sixers Look to Stay Afloat in Atlantic Against Orlando

Even though it felt like it should've counted for far more, the Sixers'
loss to the Raptors last Wednesday actually only marked one extra tally
in the loss column for the Sixers, who still rest at four games above
.500. It may feel like the race for the Atlantic (and if you wanna take
it a little further, the whole season) is over, but in actuality we're
still very much in the hunt here—the Celtics lead only by a game, having
lost their last two (admittedly tough gcontests against the Spurs and
Celtics) and playing tonight against the surging Pacers, currently on a
four-game winning streak. With the Celtics and Sixers gearing for an
Easter showdown, any scenario but a Boston win and Philly loss means
that the Ballers will have a chance to re-take the division in Boston
tomorrow.

Of course, if the C's lose and the Sixers win tonight—it happened a lot
earlier in the season, I promise—they can capture the Atlantic lead
tonight instead. To live up to their end of the bargain, Philly will
have to defeat the Orlando Magic, who like they were when the Sixers
caught them at the beginning of the season, are currently at very low
tide, having lost five in a row (including a pair of embarrassing losses
to the Knicks) and also dealing with a feud between their coach (Stan
Van Gundy) and best player (all-everything center Dwight Howard). Still,
with the Sixers coming off a 21-point loss at home to the Raptors,
we're not really anyone to talk, are we? Neither team's gonna be doing
much chest-puffing tonight.

It'll be interesting to see how the Sixers come out to start this game.
After a final half on Wednesday where they scored a combined 22 points,
looking as tired, incoherent and spiritless as we've seen the team all
year, it'll be crucial for the team to get off to a good start tonight,
to put images of that awful 24 minutes of basketball firmly in the
rearview and jump on this bad-vibes Magic team early. In fact, this game
may very well end up a borderline-pathetic "which one of these teams is
gonna crumple first?" matchup, so let's hope the Sixers are sharp
enough after a couple days off to stick it to Orlando early and beat the
fight out of them.

8:00 tip from Wells Fargo Center. Another national game, remarkably—last
year we didn't get nearly enough of them, this year it's starting to
feel like we're getting way too many. But as bad as feelings are around
this team after blowouts at the hands of Washington and Toronto in the
space of a week, it's still far from lost—keep pace with the Celtics
here, pull ahead tomorrow, and we could still be on our way to a four
seed and a potentially very favorable first-round matchup against the
underwhelming Atlanta Hawks. The time is now, though—lose a couple more,
and we're gonna start wondering if it's not too late to start tanking
just so we don't have to meet the Heat in the playoffs.

Jeremy Hellickson set to pitch Saturday — unless he's traded

Jeremy Hellickson set to pitch Saturday — unless he's traded

ATLANTA — Even with the Miami Marlins having filled their need for starting pitching, there remains significant interest in Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson, according to major league sources.

The Phillies have received offers for the 29-year-old right-hander, but none that they have deemed worthy of pulling the trigger on.

Hellickson is scheduled to make his 22nd start for the club on Saturday night. Will he make that start? Time will tell. Talks between the Phillies and interested clubs are ongoing.

Hellickson is coming off two strong starts in which he allowed just six hits and one run in 14 innings against the Marlins. Another strong start Saturday could add more luster to Hellickson’s stretch-run value and bring the Phillies the package they are seeking. The trade deadline is Monday at 4 p.m.

Miami had interest in Hellickson before making a deal to acquire starters Andrew Cashner and Colin Rea from San Diego in a seven-player trade Friday (see story).

Hellickson is viewed by industry insiders as being a fallback option for a number of teams. Demand for him could grow as trades are made and the starting pitching market thins as Monday’s deadline approaches.

Baltimore, Toronto, Texas, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Houston are among teams looking to add starting pitching.

Though there’s no guarantee that Hellickson will be moved, he is the most likely Phillie to go. Reliever David Hernandez is next on the list. A number of teams are looking for relief help. The feeling around baseball is that the Phils could move Hernandez before Monday’s deadline, but the return would only be marginal.

The Phillies have received some interest in closer Jeanmar Gomez, but not to the degree one might expect for someone with 27 saves. Because Gomez lacks power stuff, rival teams do not view him as a closer on a contending team.

FOX Sports reports that the Rangers have interest in right-hander Vince Velasquez, but the Phils would have to be blown away to move the 24-year-old right-hander. Velasquez started for the Phillies on Friday night.

Ben Simmons spending his summer getting bigger and better

Ben Simmons spending his summer getting bigger and better

Ben Simmons repeatedly emphasized at summer league he wanted to work on “everything” leading up to training camp.

As a point-forward who plays multiple positions, he has more than just one role to address this offseason. But what does “everything” entail? With a wide range of responsibilities on the court, Simmons is honing in on specific areas.

“I think just getting in the gym and making sure I’m getting reps up, shooting-wise, dribbling,” Simmons said earlier this week after an appearance at Sixers Camp in Wayne, Pennsylvania. “The weight room as well, making sure I get my strength back and my weight up.”

Shooting
Simmons has been criticized for his reluctance to shoot. During his one season of college ball at LSU, he averaged 19.2 points off 11.7 field goal attempts per game (56 percent made). Over six summer league games (including both Utah and Las Vegas), Simmons took 22 field-goal attempts and shot 32.2 percent. He had less than 10 attempts in four of the games, and attempted 15 in the Sixers’ finale. Simmons attempted one three in summer league action.

While in Utah and Las Vegas, the Sixers encouraged Simmons to be more aggressive. At 6-foot-10, Simmons is able to get to the rim. Once there, many times he passes it off rather than finishing himself. The Sixers don’t expect Simmons to become a 30-point-per-game scorer, but he will be a key part of their offense.

“You always want him to be as good of a shooter as he can be,” Las Vegas summer league head coach Lloyd Pierce said this earlier month. “It’s not going to be his strength. His strength is going to be passing, facilitating, playmaking. That’s going to be an added bonus, whatever the percentage or the number is.”

Dribbling
Simmons averaged 5.5 assists per game during summer league (second on the team by 0.3 dimes to T.J McConnell). Conversely, he committed 3.83 turnovers.

The Sixers signed two point guards this summer, Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez, and McConnell is returning from last season. Head coach Brett Brown said after the draft he does not plan to utilize Simmons as the primary one-guard right away as the 20-year-old learns the league. But early on, Simmons will have the rock in his hands plenty of times given his natural ball-handling abilities, especially when grabbing the rebound and running the fast break.

"I think it's the hardest position to play in the NBA,” Brown previously said. “I think to just give him the ball in that capacity is borderline cruel. He needs to feel NBA basketball. And maybe he evolves there." (See story)

Weight room
After college, Simmons put on 20 pounds from his training and entered the draft at 242 pounds. He stood out among the competition in summer league play with his NBA-ready stature. Simmons said he would like to get up to 246 or 247 pounds this offseason.

“Not too heavy,” he said.

With the size of a forward and the skills of a guard, the Sixers will be able to utilize Simmons to create mismatches both in the backcourt and at the hoop.

Tonight's lineup: Struggling Rupp back behind the plate for Phillies

Tonight's lineup: Struggling Rupp back behind the plate for Phillies

After scoring five first-inning runs on their way to a 7-5 win against the Braves on Thursday, Pete Mackanin decided not to tinker with the Phillies' lineup too much.

In fact, the only change will be at catcher. The struggling Cameron Rupp will get the start on Friday and bat sixth after Carlos Ruiz was behind the plate on Thursday. Rupp, who was one of the few bright spots for the offense in the first half, is just 5 for 31 since the All-Star break. On the season, Rupp is still batting .271 with 10 homers and 29 RBIs.

Aaron Altherr came off the DL with a bang, tallying three hits, including a two-run homer on Thursday. Mackanin has said Altherr will get a long look in right field and Thursday night was a glimpse of why. 

With Altherr's regular presence in the lineup, Cody Asche has been put on notice. After going on a tear from early June to early July, Asche is batting .094 (5 for 53) in his last 17 games. With Altherr and Odubel Herrera entrenched in right and center, Asche will have to get hot to stave off prospect Nick Williams, who seems to be finding his groove at Lehigh Valley.

Here is tonight's lineup:
1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, RF
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Cody Asche, LF
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Vince Velasquez, P