Take It On the Run: Up-tempo Sixers narrowly defeat Bilbao Spain in pre-season opener

Take It On the Run: Up-tempo Sixers narrowly defeat Bilbao Spain in pre-season opener

Whoo. You might have needed to catch your breath a bit after that surprisingly suspenseful and absolutely exhausting-looking pre-season opener for the Philadelphia Sixers in Bilbao, Spain, in which the Liberty Ballers managed to just escape a loss with a fourth-quarter surge to take the lead, and then a couple clutch Spencer Hawes free throws to stave off the choke job. The Brett Brown era of Sixers ball officially begins with a 106-104 overseas victory.

More importantly than seeing our boys get the W, we also got to see their new team identity, which from the looks of this one couldn't be more clear: Cause turnovers and get out in transition. Prepare for a boatload of homoerotic puns over the course of this Sixers season, because they were seriously getting their hands on some balls today--Doug Collins' black heart would have been warmed by the countless number of deflections this team got, especially with their starters out in the first half, and they ended with 23 steals on the afternoon. (By contrast, last year's squad averaged about 7.4 swipes per game, and never managed more than 14 in any individual contest.)

As stunning as the defense's disruptiveness was, it was the team's play in the open court that made the biggest impression. About 60 seconds into this one, it was pretty damn clear that Brett Brown's talk about pace and pushing the tempo was not just typical pre-season lip service--this team got out and ran like hell. They ran off makes, they ran off misses, and they definitely ran off turnovers, seemingly spending two-thirds of the game in transition.

While this led to some nice plays and a lot of easy points on the break--imperative for a young team like the Sixers, and one lacking in major half-court offensive weapons--it also led to a lot of sloppy giveaways going back the other way, and the team's shaky on-court chemistry (which came as no surprise for a squad that's been totally overhauled and has only played together for a little over a week) was evident on some botched alley-oops and other two-on-ones. Though the Sixers caused steals, they also turned the ball over 26 times--again more than the team registered in any game last year. (To be fair, both numbers were inflated by the game's international officiating, in which just about anything that vaguely resembled a travel, moving screen or offensive foul was ruled as such. And that it was, y'know, a pre-season exhibition game.)

Still, you hope that as the team tightens things up a little bit, their running ways will serve them will over the course of the season, as their blitzing defense and supreme youth and athleticism allows them to stay in games against competition that's probably more talented and clearly more seasoned. At the very least, it's a good deal more entertaining to watch so far than last year's stodgy parade of low-percentage pick-and-pops and plodding iso possessions.

Individual notes on some of the game's more noteworthy players:

Evan Turner was clearly the star of the day, scoring a game-high 25 points with five boards and three assists (though five TOs, natch). More important than the number of points for ET was the way he scored them--he did a good job early of not settling for his trademark contested mid-range jumpers, attacking the basket and drawing 12 free throws for the game, six in the first quarter alone. There might be periods this season where he goes two weeks without drawing that many FTs, and the international officiating again helped a little with that, but it was good to see Evan taking advantage of the relative lack of athleticism on the Spain team by driving and drawing contact whenever possible.

Also good to see ET essentially serve as the closer on this one, checking back in the game during a fourth-quarter lull that saw the Sixers start to slip out of contention, but bringing them back with a couple nice elbow jumpers in which he'd managed to clear enough space with his dribble to get the shots off virtually uncontested, as well as an impressive baseline shot which it didn't seem he'd possibly have room to get up and in. Evan's line on the night would have looked even more impressive had he not failed to finish on a couple easy ones at the basket, but that those shots were even there for him at all was mildly encouraging.

The only real knock on Turner in this one was his occasionally lazy defense, failing to get back in transition on a couple occasions, letting himself get hung up on screens that freed wide-open three-point shooters, and missing a rotation or two that led to easy interior scores for the opposition. But ultimately, a strong evening (Bilbao time) for the Extraterrestrial.

ET's outing stood in strong contrast to that of rookie Michael Carter-Williams, who couldn't score at all--just three points on the night on 1-5 shooting, the 1 being a nice knifing layup drive early in the first--but contributed to the game in just about all other facets. Unlike the rest of the predominantly butterfingered Sixers tonight, MCW managed to notch six assists without turning the ball over once, which was very impressive for such a scattershot game. Both Carter-Williams and Turner did an excellent job throughout of penetrating in the lane and then kicking out to the open shooters in the corners--an obvious staple of Coach Brown's previous administration in San Antonio, and one of the more efficient ways to score in today's NBA.

Carter-Williams also served as one of the team's most active ballhawks on defense, notching three steals and countless more deflections, and generally giving the Bilbao ball-handlers the business with his pressuring defense. MCW did get very badly abused in the post on one occasion, with his slightish frame occasionally making for a bad matchup when he's forced to guard opposing wings in smaller Sixer lineups, but it's clear that his perimeter defense is going to be a real asset for the team this year.

The shooting, without a doubt, is going to be a problem. MCW opted out of taking a couple open jumpers from range early, and when he later actually attemtped a couple, it was clear to see why he was initially hesitant--his first trey missed so badly that Thad was able to finish it like an unintentional alley-oop, and his second bricked wide right enough to miss the rim entirely. When he was forced to pull up in the lane, the lack of any kind of floater or runner in his arsenal showed itself, as he instead lifted for a kind of off-balance fadeaway jumper, missing awkwardly from short distance.

Still, the hope with MCW is that he'll eventually turn into a Rajon Rondo-like player, a threat on offense with his ability to penetrate at will and either score around the hoop or dish to the open man (even if his lack of a jumper occasionally makes him a liability), and a general menace on defense. From the evidence today, there were strong signs that he might get there eventually, even if it seems all but certain we'll have to endure a couple seasons of Carter-Williams shooting in the 30%s before he gets there.

Star of Sixers training camp Tony Wroten had a game that similarly exposed his strengths and weaknesses. Wroten was also an occasional beast on defense and a terror in the open court, at one point scoring an and-one with an almost Derrick Rose-like twisting finish in minimal space off a fantastic Spencer Hawes outlet pass. He looked stronger and more athletic than any other player on the court, and his enormous potential on both sides of the ball was abundantly clear.

There were buts, though. The three steals he racked up were the result of relentless gambling on defense, letting the opposition blow by him on numerous occasions when he failed to get the strip or deflection. And for every highlight-worthy play in the open court, there was another where he missed a bunny or made the wrong read on the odd-man break. (To his credit, Wroten at least kept a lid on his limited outside shooting in the half-court, only attempting one three and making most of his hay on drives to the basket, finishing 3-8 from the field and 10-12 from the line.)

Interestingly, when it came time for the Sixers' final possession of the day/night, Wroten essentially waved off Evan Turner, who had been the Sixers' most reliable scorer and (as MCW sat) best playmaker in the fourth quarter, running a pick-and-roll with Hawes that went nowhere. You like the confidence, I guess, but I wonder if Coach Brown wouldn't have rather Wroten let the more experienced (and game-hotter, if you place stock in such streakiness) Turner make the game-deciding play. Something to keep an eye on from here.

Up-and-down night for Thaddeus Young, whose apparent eagerness to show off his improved ball-handling and outside-shooting skills let to a good number of cringe-worthy slippage turnovers and clanked jumpers. Credit to Thad, though, he made a couple big shots (even a three-pointer!) late, and ended with a very Thad-like line of 14 points on 6-11 shooting, with six rebounds and a team-high five steals, even if he also turned the ball over five times and fouled six times, including on the late-fourth trey attempt that allowed German Gabriel three free throws to tie the game. All in all, decent enough for a first game of the new year.

James Anderson impressed some, scoring 15 points on 6-8 shooting, including 2-3 from distance. He looked a little like J-Rich for us catching-and-shooting beyond the arc, also getting a nice slam on an alley-oop on the break and playing acceptable defense. He wouldn't be the first Sixer to look lights-out in the pre-season and then turn into a bricklayer once the calendar turns to November, but he could be a nice pick-up for the shooting-starved Sixers. (Hollis Thompson also had some moments, scoring nine points on 3-4 shooting.)

The aforementioned game-winning free throws and excellent touchdown pass were just about the only things that Spencer Hawes did well on this one, otherwise going 1-8 from the field with six boards, though at least the one field goal was a big three-pointer to tie the game late. Otherwise, Spence badly missed TWO SEPARATE putback dunks, got generally pushed around on defense, and missed on every one of his needle-threading interior passes, ending the game with two turnovers and zero assists. With the lack of competent, healthy big men on this roster, Spence is definitely gonna get his minutes, but he's gonna have to do better than this during this contract year of his to have any kind of post-Sixers future.

I have no pressing observations on Tim Ohlbrecht, other that he kinda looks like Spence in profile, which can be really confusing, especially since Ohlbrecht wears #20, which resembles Spence's #00 at a glance. He also got dunked on once, furthering the comparison. Get well soon, Lavoy.

Speaking of health, you can really see how brilliantly Nerlens Noel is going to fit on this roster upon his return. The Sixers' perimeter guys clearly have the green light to go for the steal on defense just about whenever possible, which as previously mentioned, leads to a lot of turnovers and runouts, but also leads to a lot of easy penetration and layups when they whiff, especially given the team's current lack of a second line of defense. (Sorry, Spence.)

But with a true shot-blocking threat like Noel back there to provide that second line, and even to purposefully funnel opponents to...it won't fix all the team's defensive woes, but it'll certainly help cover up some of the more catastrophic breakdowns. Not to mention the additional weaponry he'll provide for the team as a mobile big man on the fast break, or the fact that Nerlens was nearly as much of a force stripping the ball (over two steals a game at Kentucky) as he was blocking it. Point is, once this guy's healthy, he's gonna help us in a big way, even if his offensive game doesn't even reach first-year Serge Ibaka levels of sophistication.

Anyway, lotta good, lotta not-so-good, and mostly a whole bunch of who-knows from the Philadelphia 76ers in this early pre-season matchup. Gotta say, though, it's pretty exciting to have all this new shit to talk with this team about after just one game. Beats the hell out of more Swaggy, Kwame and Damien, for sure.

On Eagles' roster bubble, Marcus Smith finally showing signs of improvement

On Eagles' roster bubble, Marcus Smith finally showing signs of improvement

Final cuts are a little over a week away. Marcus Smith is trying to impress a coaching staff that didn't draft him. Steven Means has had a very good preseason. Smith has little to show for his first two NFL seasons.

If time is running out on the former first-round pick from Louisville, it's not weighing on him.

"I try not to think about those things," Smith said. "Just go out there every single day and not worry about what's going on around me because everything will take care of itself."

Smith, in his first year as a 4-3 defensive end after struggling in two seasons as a 3-4 linebacker, missed the preseason game against the Bucs with a concussion but actually played very well Thursday night in Pittsburgh, with four tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry.

It didn't count. But it was the kind of performance the Eagles have been waiting for since they made Smith the 26th pick in the 2014 draft.

Smith played just 68 snaps as a rookie, getting more than seven snaps in only four games. Last year, he played five or fewer snaps in nine of 16 games.

But new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has given Smith every opportunity to shine, and he liked what he saw in Pittsburgh.

"The thing I'm most proud about with Marcus is that he's done a good job in the run game," Schwartz said.

"He's a very skilled athlete. He's fast and he's smooth. I think he was a quarterback when he first went to Louisville. I mean, that stuff shows. Where he's really making good improvement is setting the edge of our defense [and] attacking tackles.

"He did that against a physical group from Pittsburgh. That was a great sign."

Smith was asked about his run defense being an underrated part of his game, and he disagreed with the assessment.

"For myself, it's not an underrated part,  but everybody else thinks that it's underrated because they see me as just a pass rusher," he said.

"But I also know that I can play the run and stop the run and rush the passer at the same time, and when you have both those tools then it allows the coaches to be able to put you in the game more."

When the preseason began, it was just kind of a foregone conclusion that Smith's time in Philly had run out.

Now, he's battling not only for a roster spot, presumably with Means, but also for playing time behind defensive ends Vinny Curry, Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham.

Smith insists he's not worried about where he fits in on a roster that's loaded on the defensive line.

"I don't think about those things because if you think about things you can't control you tend to not do the things that you're supposed to do," he said.

"So I just worry about what I can control and just get better and play well."

Smith is on three special teams units — kickoff, punt and kickoff return — which gives him a few more opportunities to show he belongs.

More than anything, for the first time since he got to the NFL, he's brimming with confidence.

That, more than anything else, was missing the last two seasons.

"I feel really comfortable just because the scheme and the type of defense that we're playing, it allows me to just be a defensive end," he said.

"My confidence level is really high. I feel that when I'm out on the field I can't be stopped."

Russell Wilson still affecting Eagles' decision making

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Russell Wilson still affecting Eagles' decision making

By now, most Eagles fans have probably heard stories that the team coveted Russell Wilson in the 2012 NFL draft, but waited too long and wound up watching helplessly as he went to the Seahawks. Doug Pederson was just an offensive quality control coordinator with back then, but even he realizes how losing out on a franchise quarterback altered the course of history.

“If we’d have drafted Russell Wilson in 2012, we’d still be here as coaches,” Pederson said with a smile.

That's what Pederson tells Albert Breer for TheMMQB.com, and there might be a bit of truth to it. Despite concerns over his stature, it turns out Wilson was an outstanding NFL signal-caller from the jump, and while he was surrounded with a dominant defense and ground attack, likely would've been a winner just about anywhere.

Actually, Wilson may not have been good enough to save Andy Reid's head coaching job in Philadelphia or his staff — after 14 years, it was time, and an offensive line depleted by injuries was the real reason behind a 4-12 season. Regardless, Pederson learned something from waiting too long on Wilson in the draft, and based on their aggressive move for Carson Wentz this year, the Eagles organization did too.

Simply enough, if you like a quarterback, Pederson says, “Take him. Take him. Take the best available one. If you’re not planning for the quarterback position, you’re probably not going to win many games.”

...

“There’s a lesson there. Seattle, they felt like we did with Russell Wilson,” Pederson said. “We got Nick Foles right after that, and I love Nick Foles and think he’s gonna be a good quarterback in this league and do well for Kansas City. But if you’re not planning for that position …”

For as much criticism or questioning as the Eagles have faced for their plan at the quarterback position this year, "take him" certainly was not the issue. In addition to all of players and draft collateral they gave up for Wentz, they also invested large sums of money into current starter Sam Bradford and long-term backup Chase Daniel.

If you think Pederson and executive vice president of personnel Howie Roseman's experience of missing out on Wilson didn't play a role in those moves, the head coach made it quite clear to the contrary. While Eagles fans would prefer the known quantity and proven Super Bowl champion under center, you can't say this regime hasn't done everything in its power to erase that mistake.

NHL Notes: Panthers flip Dave Bolland's contract, prospect Lawson Crouse to Coyotes for picks

NHL Notes: Panthers flip Dave Bolland's contract, prospect Lawson Crouse to Coyotes for picks

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- The Arizona Coyotes have acquired prospect Lawson Crouse and veteran Dave Bolland's contract from the Florida Panthers for two draft picks.

Arizona sent a 2017 third-round pick and a conditional 2018 second-rounder that could become another 2017 third to Florida. The Coyotes are taking on the final three years of the injured Bolland's deal to pick up Crouse, the 11th pick in the 2015 draft.

Nagging injuries limited Bolland to 25 games last season, and the 30-year-old forward has three years left on his deal at a salary-cap hit of $5.5 million. But Arizona general manager John Chayka said Bolland isn't expected to play for the foreseeable future and could be placed on long-term injured reserve.

Crouse, 19, is a 6-foot-4 left winger who could make his NHL debut this fall.

Avalanche name Jared Bednar head coach
DENVER -- The Colorado Avalanche have hired Jared Bednar as their new head coach.

Bednar replaces Patrick Roy, who abruptly stepped down as coach and vice president of hockey operations earlier this month.

The 44-year-old Bednar won the American Hockey League's Calder Cup championship as coach of the Lake Erie Monsters last season. He also won the ECHL's Kelly Cup in 2009 with the South Carolina Stingrays.

President of hockey operations and general manager Joe Sakic said upon Roy's sudden resignation that he'd look outside the organization for Colorado's next coach. He did just that with Bednar, who had been in the Columbus system.

Sidney Crosby named Canada's captain for World Cup of Hockey
Canada has chosen Sidney Crosby as its captain for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.

Crosby returns as Canada's captain after wearing the "C" for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He's coming off his second Stanley Cup as captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber will serve as the alternates.

Crosby scored one of Canada's biggest goals in international history when he beat U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller to win the gold medal on home ice at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Now 29, he has two gold medals, two Cup rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Canada begins training camp Sept. 5 in Ottawa. The World Cup begins Sept. 17 in Toronto (see full story).

Coyotes hire NHL's first female coach
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Coyotes have hired Dawn Braid as skating coach and say she is believed to be the first full-time female coach in NHL history.

Braid has a long association with the NHL.

She worked part-time for the Coyotes last year and has served as a skating consultant with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames.

Braid also spent seven years with the Athletes Training Center as director of skating development. Among the skaters she worked with while there is New York Islanders center John Tavares (see full story).