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.

Best of MLB: Mets win in 10th on Yoenis Cespedes' walk-off HR

Best of MLB: Mets win in 10th on Yoenis Cespedes' walk-off HR

NEW YORK -- Yoenis Cespedes homered with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning to give the New York Mets a 2-1 victory over the Miami Marlins in the first game of a pivotal series between National League playoff contenders Monday night.

Jose Reyes dashed home to score the tying run in the eighth on a dangerous collision at the plate, and the Mets pulled even with Miami for second place in the NL East. With its seventh victory in nine games, New York remained 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the league's second wild card.

It was an exhilarating win for the Mets, who appeared to be at a major disadvantage on the mound in the opener of a four-game set. New York was shut out for six innings by Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, but Mets starter Rafael Montero also put up zeros in his first major league start since April 2015 (see full recap).

Martinez's 13 K's, throwing error give Cards win
MILWAUKEE -- Stephen Piscotty scored on a throwing error in the ninth inning after Carlos Martinez struck out a career-high 13, leading the St. Louis Cardinals over the Milwaukee Brewers 6-5 on Monday night.

With two on and nobody out in the ninth, Yadier Molina dropped down a bunt. Reliever Tyler Thornburg (5-5) threw to third base for a force out, but Jonathan Villar's throw to first was wild, allowing Piscotty to score.

After Martinez held Milwaukee to one run over six innings, the Brewers scored four runs in the seventh to take a 5-3 lead. St. Louis tied it in the eighth on a two-run homer by Randal Grichuk off Corey Knebel.

Seung Hwan Oh pitched a perfect ninth for his 14th save. Miguel Socolovich (1-0) pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings to pick up his first win.

Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong each hit solo home runs for the Cardinals (see full recap).

Royals keep rolling, take down Yankees
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Dillon Gee kept the Royals' momentum going with six sharp innings, Alcides Escobar hit a three-run homer and Kansas City beat the New York Yankees 8-5 on Monday night to open their three-game set.

Gee (6-7) allowed only four hits and a run in the latest impressive start by the Royals' staff, helping the reigning World Series champions win for the 18th time in 22 games.

Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales and Alex Gordon drove in runs off Michael Pineda (6-11) during a five-hit salvo in the first inning. Pineda then retired 15 straight before getting into a two-on, no-outs jam in the seventh that led to Escobar's homer off reliever Blake Parker.

Starlin Castro drove in two runs for the Yankees, the second in a four-run eighth inning that forced Kansas City manager Ned Yost to summon fill-in closer Kelvin Herrera (see full recap).

Jake Thompson tweaks delivery, offers ray of light on a dark night for Phillies

Jake Thompson tweaks delivery, offers ray of light on a dark night for Phillies

BOX SCORE

On the surface, this was not a very positive night at the ballpark for the Phillies. They had just four hits and lost, 4-0, to the Washington Nationals in front of the smallest crowd of the season – 16,056, announced – at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay).
 
But lest we forget, this is a rebuilding season and in a rebuilding season the final score isn’t always paramount. So on an otherwise dark Monday night there was a ray of light for the Phillies.
 
Jake Thompson had the kind of start those who traded for him a year ago and those who watched him pitch this season in Triple A said he was capable of having.
 
“It was great to see,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “That’s just what he needed. He needed a real positive outing. I think this will do wonders for him down the road.”
 
Thompson held the NL East-leading Nationals to two runs over seven innings, his longest of five outings in the majors.
 
“He looked like the pitcher that was advertised,” Mackanin said.
 
Thompson’s first four outings in the majors were poor. He was tagged for 22 hits and 21 earned runs in 19 1/3 innings. He walked 13 and struck out 13. Those results were starkly different than his last 11 starts in Triple A. He went 8-0 in those 11 starts and recorded a 1.21 ERA while allowing just 10 earned runs in 74 1/3 innings. He gave up just 52 hits and 18 walks over that span while striking out 42.
 
After watching Thompson for four starts, pitching coach Bob McClure decided to suggest some delivery changes to the 22-year-old right-hander.
 
Players are often receptive to making adjustments when they are struggling. Thompson incorporated the changes McClure suggested and found success Monday night.
 
“We just tried to simplify his delivery so he could make better quality pitches,” McClure said.
 
In his old delivery, Thompson started off facing home plate. He pulled his arms over his head, turned and lifted his front leg before delivering the ball. McClure eliminated many of the moving parts. No more lifting the arms above the head. No more body turn. Thompson started his delivery with his body already turned, like a modified stretch. He simply lifted his leg, let his body go down the slope and fired. The new delivery slowed everything down for him. He looked poised, especially after the first couple of innings, and started attacking hitters with first-pitch strikes like a confident pitcher does.
 
Considering he only worked on the new delivery in two short bullpen sessions Saturday and Sunday in New York, Thompson was a pretty quick study.
 
“It was huge,” he said of the new delivery. “Just on the physical side of things, I’m in a better position to make pitches. I took away some moving parts to make it easier on myself.”
 
Thompson allowed seven hits, walked one and struck out three. All three strikeouts came in his final inning of work. He struck out leadoff man Trea Turner with two men on base with a slider to end the inning.
 
That’s another adjustment McClure made. He had Thompson stop throwing his curveball and focus on his fastball, slider, cutter and changeup.
 
Both of the runs that Thompson allowed came in the first inning on a solo homer by Jayson Werth and an RBI single by Anthony Rendon. After that, Thompson recorded six straight shutout innings. His teammates didn’t support him offensively. Washington right-hander Tanner Roark pitched seven shutout innings. He is 3-0 and has allowed just two runs in 28 innings in four starts against the Phils this season.
 
Thompson needed a start like this for a couple of reasons. First, if he had been pounded again, Phillies officials might have had to consider taking him out of the rotation just so his confidence didn’t get ruined.
 
And second, with Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin out with injuries, the team needed to know something was going right for one of the young pitchers being groomed for the future. Vince Velasquez, another young arm, had three poor outings before pitching well in New York on Sunday.
 
“This will help his confidence a lot,” McClure said.
 
McClure then offered a little glimpse into Thompson’s competitive character.
 
“He seemed pissed that he wasn't pitching well,” McClure said. “But he wasn't deflated. We felt like we should keep starting him because he didn't seem beaten. He seems like a tough kid mentally. We felt like once he started making better quality pitches, he'd get better results.”
 
It happened Monday, a ray of light on an otherwise dark night.

Instant Replay: Nationals 4, Phillies 0

Instant Replay: Nationals 4, Phillies 0

BOX SCORE

The Phillies were beaten, 4-0, by the Washington Nationals on Monday night, but wins and losses don’t matter as much as development in a rebuilding season, so there was a bright spot: Rookie right-hander Jake Thompson finally broke through with a good start in holding the Nats to two runs over seven innings.
 
The Phillies’ offense was not good. It produced just four hits on the night.
 
Washington got all the offense it needed when Jayson Werth, the second batter of the game, homered off Thompson in the first inning.

The Nats lead the NL East at 76-55. The Phils are 60-71.
 
The crowd of 16,056 was the smallest of the season at Citizens Bank Park.
 
Starting pitching report
Thompson had struggled in four starts — 9.78 ERA — since arriving from Triple A and there were questions whether he’d even make this start. But he put together a nice outing. After giving up two runs in the first inning, he pitched six straight scoreless innings, finishing his outing with three strikeouts, the last of which came on his 111th pitch when he froze Trea Turner with a breaking ball with two men on base. Thompson allowed seven hits — four in the first three innings — and walked one.
 
Washington right-hander Tanner Roark pitched seven shutout innings to improve to 14-7. He held the Phils to four hits and a walk and struck out five.

Roark is 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA (two earned runs in 28 innings) in four starts against the Phillies this season. The Nats are 15-4 in his last 19 starts.

Bullpen report
Frank Herrmann gave up two runs in the ninth.
 
At the plate
Odubel Herrera had two of the Phillies’ four hits.
 
Werth’s homer in the top of the first was his 19th. Anthony Rendon drove in a run with a two-out single in that inning. Clint Robinson and Turner had RBI singles in the ninth to push the Nats’ lead to 4-0.
 
ICYMI
Herrera is staying in center field for the remainder of the season, Pete Mackanin said (see story).
 
Up next
The series continues on Tuesday night. Jerad Eickhoff (9-12, 3.87) pitches against Washington right-hander Max Scherzer (14-7, 2.92).