The Unstoppable Force Meets, Like, the Most Movable Object Ever: A state of the union before Sixers-Spurs

The Unstoppable Force Meets, Like, the Most Movable Object Ever: A state of the union before Sixers-Spurs

37 games. That's the disparity in win streaks between the Philadelphia 76ers, who have dropped 24 straight, and the San Antonio Spurs, who have rolled through their last 13 games, at the moment. It's a difference in current franchise realities that should be rather prominently on display when the two teams face off tonight in San Antonio in coach Brett Brown's return to the franchise he spent over a decade with. The Spurs are a nightmare matchup for the Sixers: Offensively fluid, with shooters and passers everywhere, capable of playing both at the breakneck open-court pace Philly favors and at the grinding half-court pace in which the Sixers quickly wither, and also defensively opportunistic, able to force teams into playing to their weaknesses and quickly turning mistakes into points at the other end. The results will not be pretty.

However, it might be worth watching anyway. If you've had the stomach to tune in to the last handful of Sixers games, you'll notice that the team has been playing better recently. Not well enough to win, exactly, but well enough to remain competitive, and well enough to see the subtle ways the team is improving, or at least adapting to their new surroundings. They've been defending better, they're finding ways to generate offense, and they might have even found a long-term keeper or two in their endless scrap heap and D-League shuffle.

Michael Carter-Williams is shooting and operating with more confidence, much more liable than at season's beginning to pop off a long two or a runner down the lane if given the space to do either. He's still got to work on the shots to be able to hit either with consistency, but just to see him taking them (and occasionally making) them at all is encouraging. He's also turned into the team's best rebounder, using his length and considerable ups to snare a staggering 8.3 rebounds a game since Evan and Spencer were traded, boarding in the double digits four times in the last eight games after doing so only three times before that this season. He's such a weapon in so many different facets of the game that even when he's shooting below 40% (as he now is for the season), he still manages to keep the team in a lot of these games without, obviously, a ton of help.

Meanwhile, Thaddeus Young has been given the mother of all green lights, and has turned into the league's most unlikely volume scorer, murking his field goal percentage in the process but turning him into an impressively dangerous playmaker on both sides of the ball. Since the trades, Thad is averaging an eye-popping 21.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.8 APG and 2.7 SPG--probably saving more than a handful of fantasy teams in the process--though he's only shooting 41% from the field and 30% from three, despite jacking 21 shots and a half-dozen triples a game. He's not only unrecognizable as the Thaddeus we knew and loved, but is putting up numbers unlike anyone in the league right now. We'll probably be a better team once Thad can get back to his high-efficiency, complementary self, but watching him put up numbers like this on such a depleted team is pretty spellbinding.

Thad and MCW are the only obviously above-average players on the roster right now, but we might have picked up a couple other keepers in big men Henry Sims and Varnado. Sims, a throw-in in the Hawes deal, has been an absolute monster--by Sixers big-man standards, anyway--at center for them, averaging ten points, seven boards and even nearly two assists a game for the size-deprived Ballers. He's a very good interior passer, a solid help defender, and a virtually unmovable presence in the middle of the paint. He's posted impressive double-doubles--16/13 and 18/15--in consecutive games against the Knicks and Bulls, two teams with no shortage of big dudes on the interior, just by being solid down low, outbattling for boards and putbacks with his size and strength.

Sims doesn't exactly have what you'd call a soft touch--he has a 1-12-foot jumper he's willing to unleash and an impressive array of offensive post moves, but not a ton of them seem to end with the ball going in the basket, as he's shooting just 43% from the field. And for a center, he's not tremendous as a shot-blocker--he's got just ten swats total since coming the Sixers, without the elevation to really get to a lot of shots at the basket. But he still manages to score at a decent-enough clip--14 points per 36 minutes--and he's a better shot-affecter than shot-blocker, pushing big guys out of position and at least giving opposing guards something to think about when attacking the basket. His PER of 16.0 is second-best among current Sixers--not saying a ton, but still. He's probably not a starter in this league, but we could do a lot worse for a backup once Nerlens Noel is ready to play.

Sims will have competition, however, from his current backup, the young journeyman Jarvis Varnado. The Mississippi State prouct has about the exact opposite skill set of Sims--he has a much more limited offensive skill set and a very odd-looking jump shot, but looks for his own shot so sparingly that he's still averaging 60% from the field, and is much less solid a post defender, but an absolutely dynamic shot-blocker, racking up over two blocks per 36 minutes. Neither exactly profiles as a likely core part of the Sixers' long-term plans, but it's easy to see either player getting minutes for this team next year. At the very least, it's fun to watch these players come along and give the team really good minutes, to make us feel like there's something being gained in all of these games of losing.

But yeah, about that losing. We're at 24 in a row currently, and that'll almost certainly become 25 tonight, and then 26 on Wednesday when we face the Rockets. The next four games will be a lot more winnable, against four sub-.500 East opponents (Pistons, Hawks, Bobcats, Celtics), but it's the first of those games, against Detroit, that the Sixers should really be focused on, since if they win that one, they'll have only tied the record for consecutive losses in a season (26, with the post-LeBron '11 Cavaliers) instead of owning it outright. Hard to be optimistic, considering how the Pistons have thumped them all season and considering some of the terrible teams they've lost to on this streak, but hopefully the Ballers' improved play of late portends a stronger showing this time out.

At the very least, I feel really good about the direction this team is heading in. The Sixers' pick in next year's draft will be a guaranteed top-fiver, and with the Pelicans going on a mini-tear of late, they've fallen to 11th in the tanking rankings--lower than some Sixer fans were hoping to be drafting with that pick perhaps, but mostly safe from somehow ending up winning the lottery and costing us the pick altogether, of late. Meanwhile, it's clear that none of Thad, MCW or Brown have given up on the season, still playing and coaching their hearts out, desperate for just one win to build off of.

I still think they'll get it before season's end, and even if they don't, I don't think they'll let it get them down enough to have any kind of long-term effect on their or the team's psyches. When I watch the Sixers play now, I don't see a team that's tanking, I see a team that just doesn't have enough good players to win games, but is trying like hell to prove otherwise. And I look forward to watching them again in tonight's likely 25th straight L.

Flyers-Islanders 5 things: Still trying to clean up mistakes after bye week

Flyers-Islanders 5 things: Still trying to clean up mistakes after bye week

Flyers (22-19-6) at Islanders (19-17-8)
6 p.m. – CSN/CSNPhilly.com and streaming live on the NBCSports app; Pregame Live begins at 5:30.
 
The struggling Flyers head north Sunday night to battle the Metropolitan Division rival Islanders at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
 
Let’s take a closer look at Sunday’s matchup.
 
1. New week, same Flyers
Those hoping the Flyers would be a refreshed, recharged team after the bye week met a harsh reality Saturday night.
 
The Flyers were blown out of the Wells Fargo Center in a 4-1 loss to the Devils that saw the same things continue to haunt the home team — defensive breakdowns and a lack of offense, among other things.
 
It’s no secret this season is quickly slipping away from the Flyers. They’ve lost their hold on the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference to the upstart Maple Leafs and the Hurricanes, Panthers and Devils are breathing right down the Flyers’ backs. To pile on the good news, every other team in the East is within four points of the Flyers, including the last-place Isles, who have 46 points compared to the Flyers’ 50 points.
 
Needless to say, the margin for error is all but gone.
 
This has been said many times recently, but the emphasis still hasn’t waned — if the Flyers want to save this season, it has to start with the next game.
 
2. What’s the mindset?
Michal Neuvirth, who was pulled before the third period of Saturday’s game for “precautionary reasons,” had a striking quote after the loss to the Devils.
 
“When you lose so many games, you lose confidence,” he told reporters.
 
He’s not kidding, and further proof of that came in the loss to the Devils, when the game was tied 1-1. In the second period, Radko Gudas was whistled for a clipping penalty and, boy, was it an awful call. It was nothing more than a hard hip check, aka a solid hockey play. Gudas got the two-minute minor and then Wayne Simmonds received an extra two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct for protesting the call, giving Jersey a full two-man advantage.
 
Predictably, the Devils scored to take the lead. Also predictably, the Flyers unraveled after that point.
 
It just seems lately that when something goes wrong for the Flyers, it all goes wrong for the Flyers. And that’s a troubling trend.

3. Changes in Brooklyn
Superstar John Tavares is still there, but beside that, plenty has changed since the Flyers and Islanders last met, a 3-2 Flyers shootout win in November at the Barclays Center.
 
No more Jack Capuano behind the Isles’ bench, as he was recently canned amidst his team’s struggles. Assistant general manager Doug Weight, whom you may remember from his not so distant playing days, is the interim head coach for the Isles.
 
Remember goalie Jaroslav Halak, who started the two teams’ first meeting? It’s no longer his net in Brooklyn, as he’s had a falling out with the club, lost the starting job to Thomas Greiss and was recently put on waivers.
 
And the Isles have responded positively to the changes, as they’ve won three in a row heading into Sunday night’s contest. The last-place moniker is misleading because the Isles are still just five points out of the final wild-card spot and still have tons of talent.
 
4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Let’s go with Travis Konecny. Let’s just say the Flyers are in need of an energy jolt these days and the rook has just the type of skillset to provide it. He scored his team’s only goal Saturday against the Devils and isn’t afraid to throw his body around if need be. He also scored against the Isles earlier this season. He’s now up to eight goals and 14 assists on the season.
 
Islanders: It has got to be John Tavares. The guy is an absolute star, but still could fit into the “underrated” or “under the radar” categories just because he plays for the Isles. I mean, check out this goal he scored earlier this year against St. Louis. Holy moly. While you’re at it, get a glimpse of this one he scored against Dallas last week. He’s got 19 goals and 17 assists on the year. In his career against the Flyers, he’s got 15 goals and 13 assists for 28 points, the third-most points he’s tallied against any team in the NHL.
 
5. This and that
• In a scheduling quirk, Sunday evening will mark the fourth straight time the Flyers and Islanders will play in Brooklyn. They haven’t met in Philadelphia in over a full calendar year — Jan. 9, 2016, a 4-0 Flyers win

• Sunday is the second of four meetings between the teams this season. They’ll also play Feb. 9 and March 30, both times in South Philly.

• Greiss will start in net for the Isles on Sunday. He’s recorded shutouts in his last two starts. For the season, he's 12-7-2 with a .927 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against average.

• Reinforcements could be on the way Sunday for the Islanders, as forward Cal Clutterbuck (lower-body) and defenseman Johnny Boychuk (upper-body) could be ready to return to the lineup after injuries.

• Sunday’s game will be the second of a back-to-back set for both teams. The Flyers are 6-3-2 this year in such situations.

• The Flyers’ ugly road losing streak is up to nine games. A loss Sunday would make it a not-so-perfect 10.

With T.J. McConnell, Hawks say Sixers have 'identity' worth respecting

With T.J. McConnell, Hawks say Sixers have 'identity' worth respecting

ATLANTA – The final score was a little lopsided and the game was sloppy at times, but after beating Philadelphia, 110-93, Saturday night, the Hawks said they see promise in the rising young Sixers.

The Sixers didn’t have the legs on the tail end of back-to-back games to keep up with another hot team, and Joel Embiid did not play, as Atlanta (26-18) won for the 11th time in 13 games to move within a half game of Boston for the No. 3 spot in the East.

Yet if not for the Sixers' 21 turnovers and a second quarter where Atlanta seemed to make every shot, the Sixers (15-27) looked enough like the team that had won eight of 10 games before arriving in Philips Arena that the Hawks see differences.

The biggest change in the Sixers between Saturday and the first two meetings of the season between these two teams — one played with Embiid and one without — is T.J. McConnell starting at point guard rather than Sergio Rodriguez.

McConnell had a game-high 11 assists against the Hawks in addition to his eight points, and the Sixers had 27 assists on a night where they hit 12 of 29 three-pointers.

“They have an identity,” said Atlanta forward Kent Bazemore, who scored 16. “McConnell is playing really well, putting pressure on the defense and their floor spacing is very good. Very disciplined group.

“Guys are in the right spots, if a guy drives, they have a plethora of options: a guy in the corner, a guy on the jumper, a guy on the wing. They kept us honest for a chunk of the game.”

Ersan Ilyasova scored 21 points on 15 shots and Robert Covington added 15 points and 10 rebounds, but the Sixers were gassed in the second quarter, as the Hawks hit 16 of 23 shots in a 37-point period.

Atlanta stretched a 62-54 halftime lead to 18 points late in the third quarter, but the Sixers cut the deficit to 94-87 with 6:46 left in the game on a pair of free throws by rookie Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.

The Sixers whipped the Hawks, 20-11, in fast break points.

“They were getting some threes in transition,” said Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, who was on the Spurs' staff for years with Sixers head coach Brett Brown. “Right now, they’re pushing the pace.

“T.J. McConnell does a great job of getting outlets, getting up the court and finding shooters quickly and they’re letting it fly. Covington and Ilyasova and those guys are collapsing us early and shooting early threes.”

The Sixers had problems on the boards in Atlanta, where Dwight Howard grabbed 15 and Paul Millsap added 10 as the Hawks built a 48-38 rebounding edge. Those numbers were every bit as important as Millsap’s 21 points and the 13 added by Howard.

That disparity on the boards and the Sixers' collective loose handle did in the visitors. Atlanta scored 17 points off the Sixers’ 21 turnovers.

Embiid was scheduled to rest Saturday anyway. It’s unclear whether he’ll play Tuesday against the Clippers, who will be without guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin, or Wednesday at Milwaukee.

Embiid suffered a knee contusion in Friday night’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers and Brown said he’d be further evaluated Sunday.

Get him back in the mix, and The Sixers have a shot at starting another winning streak.

“We did a good shot of holding them to one shot,” Howard said after the Hawks outscored the Sixers, 14-0, in second-chance points. “They play really hard. They play aggressive. They play good team basketball. They share the ball and find the open man. They have a good group of young guys.

“It wasn’t as easy as people expect out of Philly teams. You have to respect them.”