The Heat Is On: Sixers Play Game One in Miami

The Heat Is On: Sixers Play Game One in Miami

No matter where you look, you're not going to find the Sixers getting much love from the playoff predictors. Everywhere in the NBA community, it's Heat in Five, Heat in Four, Heat in Two and the Sixers are going to be so demoralized that they forfeit the series, or wait a minute, you mean the Heat don't just have a first round bye? Nobody, and I mean nobody, is predicting the Sixers to pull off the upset. And can you blame them? A team that overachieved to get to 41-41, against a team that could potentially be a dynasty in the making? Which they went 0-3 against in the regular season, and seem overmatched against in just about every comaprison?

No, it's not some weird national prejudice that has the Heat as unequivocal favorites in this series, and I'm not going to be the first person to tell you that the odds should say otherwise. Without an injury, a deus ex machina, or a couple blind strokes of dumb f'ing luck, it's going to be hard bordering on impossible for the Sixers to win this series. But does that mean we shouldn't be watching anyway? Of course not. Here's a couple things to look out for in this series, that could be of interest even if the team doesn't end up winning.

  • Can they win one of the first two games in Miami? Students of recent Sixers history will of course note that they've had pretty good luck with game ones, winning in both Detroit in '08 and Orlando in '09 in series that they were similar underdogs (though maybe not quite to the degree that they are here). And Miami has a disadvantage that neither of those teams had—complete nationwide scorn, which could see the media take up the Sixers as a grassroots movement of sorts if it loos like they even have a chance to hang with the Heat. It could make us a fun story for a while, have people feeling good about the team even if they eventually bow out for the series.
  • Can the team's bench give them any sort of advantage? As was pointed out on a recent Bill Simmons podcast, the advantage that the Sixers should have with their bench—one of the best in the NBA, as opposed to the Heat's, which is undoubtedly one of the weakest—is minimized by the fact that the Heat can play their big three nearly 48 minutes a game in the playoffs, and not necessitate the drop-off. Still, they're gonna have to dip into their stocks of Joel Anthonys and Eddie Houses for at least a little while, and if Thad and Lou can come in at that point and burst out in the one-or-two-man 8-0 runs that they're certainly capable of, it could keep us competitive in a number of games that would otherwise get ugly real quick.
  • Can Jrue and Evan give us hope for the future? Neither of the team's two young pups have seen anything like playoff basketball before, and the experience here could be absolutely invaluable for the pair moving forward. Can the two step up, show maturity beyond their years, and whet the fans' appetites for what could be a number of playoff appearances to come for the two as Liberty Ballers? Remember, Evan had his best game of the season's first two months in the home opener against Miami, and Jrue ended the season on something of a tear, posting double digits in scoring in each of his last 12 games. Not only would strong performances from the the two help the team immeasurably in the series, it would show progress towards the future for the Sixers that would certainly NOT be gleaned by giving Andres Nocioni 20 minutes a game. (You listening, Dougie?)
  • Can anyone on this team make a big shot late in the game? For all his late-game failures in the two seasons since, Andre Iguodala did hit some absolutely enormous shots in the first-round series against Orlando in '09. Expecting a repeat performance might not be realistic, but if someone on this damn team could show a willingness to step up in such situations—even just Jodie Meeks hitting a dagger three with a minute and a half to go—it would certainly go a long way against a team in the Heat that showed almost as impressive a knack for late-game choke jobs as the Sixers did over the course of the season. Donyell Marshall is not working through that door, kids, and for the last time, using Jason Kapono as a floor-spacer and potential big-shot-maker in crunch time is absolutely, 100% not an option.
  • Can this team try to actually win this series? Look, it's not impossible. It's pretty close—this isn't hockey or baseball, where once you get in, any team can win. If the Sixers were to pull it off, this would almost certainly be the biggest NBA post-season upset of the 21st century. But it wouldn't be the biggest seeding-wise—the 8th-seeded Warriors took down the top-seeded Mavs half a decade ago. And nobody expected the sub-.500 Hawks to be able to hang with the regular-season-best Celtics three years ago, and the Hawks ended up pushing them to seven games—as did the 7th-seeded Bulls a year later. Would I bet on it happening? No. Would I believe it was likely to happen up until the final seconds ticked off the Sixers' fourth victory in the series? No. But it's not impossible. The Heat aren't world-beaters yet, and there have been stretches this season where the Sixers have played as well as anyone. A couple breaks early, and who knows? Philly could end up being the surprise story of the playoffs.

It's worth watching to see all this stuff. And anyway, as Michael Levin pointed out yesterday, even if the team gets swept, it's been way more fun to watch them this year than anyone could have predicted, and we should leave with a good feeling about the season regardless. The future, if not exceptionally bright for the team, is also not nearly as dim as was previously anticipated, and next season should be an interesting one regardless. So let's watch this series without expectation, and just hope that our boys can show the Heat, themselves and the world a little something, and see where it goes from there. Miracles happen every day in this world, you know.

3:30 tip from the American Airlines Arena. Let's get heroic.

Instant Replay: Cubs 6, Phillies 2

usa-adam-morgan-rain.jpg
USA Today Images

Instant Replay: Cubs 6, Phillies 2

BOX SCORE

CHICAGO – The Chicago Cubs, on the strength of three home runs, hammered the Phillies, 6-2, at Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon/evening.
 
Phillies starter Adam Morgan was hit hard.
 
The loss dropped the Phillies to 26-22. They are 1-3 on this road trip and have lost five of their last seven overall.
 
The Phillies entered the day averaging just 3.3 runs per game, the second-lowest mark in the majors. They have been held to two or fewer runs 16 times in their 48 games. 
 
The Cubs have the majors’ best record at 32-14. They are averaging a National League-best 5.7 runs per game.
 
The game was delayed 56 minutes by rain in the seventh inning.
 
It was delayed again for 37 minutes in the top of the ninth.
 
Starting pitching report
Morgan was tagged for six runs in four-plus innings as his ERA swelled to 6.67 in six starts. He was bruised for eight hits. Five were for extra bases and three were homers. One of the homers, a mammoth blast by Jorge Soler, traveled 461 feet.
 
Lefty Jon Lester got the win. He gave up just two runs over 6 1/3 innings and one was unearned.
 
Bullpen report
Andrew Bailey, Brett Oberholtzer and Colton Murray pitched scoreless ball for the Phillies.
 
Trevor Cahill and Hector Rondon finished it out for the Cubs.
 
At the plate
Maikel Franco drove in both of the Phillies’ runs with a sacrifice fly and an infield hit.
 
The Phillies had 10 hits, but only one for extra bases, a double by Odubel Herrera.
 
Tommy Joseph started at first base against the lefty Lester. He singled in his first at-bat, grounded out and struck out twice. Ryan Howard entered the game after the rain delay and struck out in his only at-bat.
 
Soler, David Ross and Kris Bryant all homered for the Cubs against Morgan. Ross’ was a three-run shot with one out in the fourth.
 
In the field
Freddy Galvis made several outstanding plays at shortstop.
 
The Cubs made two errors in the third inning and the Phillies capitalized for an unearned run.
 
Health check
Cody Asche (oblique) and Mario Hollands (elbow) both had their injury rehab assignments shifted to Triple A Lehigh Valley.
 
Asche’s 20-day rehab assignment is set to run out on Wednesday at which time the Phillies can bring him to the majors or option him to Triple A. Actually, the Phils could bring him to the majors before if they choose.
 
Right-hander Mark Appel, pitching at Lehigh Valley, was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain, which might explain the big drop in velocity he experienced in his last start.
 
The Phillies promoted Ben Lively to Lehigh Valley to take Appel’s spot. Lively was off to a tremendous start at Double A. The 24-year-old righty was 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP in nine starts.
 
Up next
Jerad Eickhoff (2-6, 3.86) pitches Saturday afternoon against Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks (2-4, 3.30).

Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare added to World Cup rosters

panaccio_720x405_693409347859.jpg

Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare added to World Cup rosters

Turns out the hip and abdominal surgeries for both Flyers captain Claude Giroux and rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere weren’t a deterrent from making their countries’ respective World Cup of Hockey rosters.
 
Also going will be center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who was added to Team Europe’s roster.
 
All three Flyers were “add-ons” to Team Canada, Team North America and Team Europe as the final rosters were announced on Friday night.
 
The World Cup of Hockey tournament begins in September 17 and ends on Oct. 1.

Giroux, 28, has twice represented Canada at the World Championships and once in World Junior competition.
 
Gostisbehere, 23,  represented the U.S. internationally once the World Juniors. Team North America is all players 23-and-under or “Young Stars” as some refer to them.
 
Despite his poorest offensive output in three years, Giroux still led the Flyers with 67 points this season, playing in his 500th career game and scoring his 500th point. He won the Bobby Clarke Trophy as team MVP.
 
Gostisbehere took the NHL by storm as a November fill-in for the injured Mark Streit and ended up becoming a Calder Trophy finalist. That award will be announced in late June. 
 
He quickly ended up as the team’s first unit power play quarterback, and led all rookie defensemen in points (46), while establishing several club rookie records, including goals by a Flyers defenseman (17).
 
Gostisbehere was voted the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the team’s best defenseman and the Gene Hart Memorial Award, given by the Flyers’ fan club to the players possessing the most “heart.”
 
Bellemare, 32, had 14 points this season as a valuable fourth line checking center and penalty killer. He also celebrated his 100th game as a Flyer. He figures to be a role player for Team Europe.
 
Ghost and Giroux both had off-season surgery on May 17. Their recovery is approximately 10-12 weeks. Both are expected at Flyers’ training camp in September.
 
Incidentally, the Flyers had just 167 man-games lost due to injury this past season. That’s the fewest number of injuries since 1998-99 when they had 120.
 
In all, the Flyers will send eight players – Bellemare, Giroux, Gostisbehere, center Sean Couturier (North America), defenseman Mark Streit (Team Europe), and three players from the Czech Republic – defenseman Radko Gudas, goalie Michal Neuvirth and forward Jakub Voracek.
 
Eight teams will compete in the tournament with every game being played at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
 
Philadelphia was one of the host cities for the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996 when the Wells Fargo Center first opened as the CoreStates Center.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

052616-ben-simmons.jpg

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.