What the hell has been going on with Sixers garbage time lately?

What the hell has been going on with Sixers garbage time lately?

With their 107-99 loss to the Wizards in Monday's MLK matinee--not really as close as that final score makes it look--the Philadelphai 76ers have lost three straight, and seven of eight. This is, of course, not particularly surprising: Despite winning four straight on the road prior to their recent cold spell, just about everything pointed to a downturn in the Sixers' play at some point, and now with injuries to Tony Wroten and Brandon Davies depleting the team's already shallow bench (and the inevitable regressions to the mean sapping Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young of their productivity), now seems like as good a time as any.

What has been notable to me, however, is the way that Coach Brown has handled garbage time in the three most recent losses. Here's how Brown has handled the end-of-game stretches of the three losses:

Friday against Miami: The fourth quarter starts with all five Sixer starters on the bench and Miami up by 18. Though the Sixers trim the lead to 14 by an official timeout at the 8:45 mark, about when the starters would usually start to trickle back into the lineup, Brown leaves the bench unit out there--even as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gets his first five back in the game--and none of the starters re-enter the game before Miami pulls away and ends up winning by 15.

Saturday in Chicago: The fourth quarter starts with Michael Carter-Williams still on the floor, and Chicago up by a resounding 27. Though the game remains roundly out of reach for the entire quarter, Brown brings his other four starters back to the floor, and after giving him about a minute's rest, he sends MCW back out as well. The starting five fail to make any real headway, and are all eventually replaced by bench guys with about four minutes to go, as the Sixers lose by 25.

Today in Washington: The fourth quarter starts with Carter-Williams and Thaddeus Young on the floor with three bench guys, as the Sixers trail by 13. Though both Young and Carter-Williams have had strong games--MCW in particular having one of his best of the season, just two off his career high with 31--Young exits the game with eight minutes to go, and Carter-Williams with four minutes left and Philly down 16, as Spencer Hawes returns to finish things out with the bench crew. Though the Sixers quickly (and surprisingly) make legitimate inroads, cutting the Wizards lead to eight with two-and-a-half minutes to go, Brown leaves Thad and MCW on the bench, and Evan Turner doesn't play the entire fourth quarter. The Wizards just barely hold the fort and end up winning by eight.

The pattern here to me is very inconsistent. When Brett Brown left the starters out of the Miami game late, even though the final result was still in question enough to make Spoelstra nervous, I felt like I understood it--the Sixers weren't likely to come back, and the team had a road game the next night that Brown likely didn't want the team to be utterly exhausted for. I didn't love him throwing the towel in so prematurely against the hated Heat at home, but I could live with it, especially if it meant a better effort in Chicago (which it ultimately didn't, but whatever.)

However, if that was the explanation on Friday, it doesn't make so much sense today. Coming back from double-digits against the two-time-champion Heat and the mediocre Wizards isn't the same thing, and with the Sixers not playing again until Wednesday this week, it doesn't seem likely Coach Brown would consider resting his main guys a priority. Down eight points with over two minutes to go, the Sixers had a shot--an outside shot, sure, but not a dismissible one--to steal that game, and it's surprising to me that Brown would leave MCW and his 31 points on 13-22 shooting, as well as Evan Turner and his decent track record of clutch proficiency this season, on the bench for it, in favor of Lorenzo Brown and Elliott Williams.

Maybe, then, Brown wanted to reward his bench units for making their late-game runs, as well as riding the hot hands to see if they could battle back on their own? But then why did he re-introduce the starters in Chicago, when it was clear that they weren't getting the job done, and most of them were struggling through some of their worst outings of the season? Why only bring your best guys back when the game is most out of reach?

Of course, there might be a consistent explanation for all of this, and maybe you've been screaming it at your computer screen since you started reading this article: Perhaps Brett Brown didn't really want to try to win these games. Perhaps he's leaving his starters out there when the game's decided and going with the bench crews when the game's still a little in doubt because he didn't want to chance actually coming out of the game with a win. Perhaps this is the long-awaited beginning of the 76ers actually making proactive steps towards tanking.

It would certainly make sense, at least in theory, though it's hard to believe Brown would willingly do such a thing in his first season as coach, when he's not really given us any indication thusfar that that's something he and/or the rest of the Sixers staff would tolerate or encourage. Maybe there's behind-the-season reasoning that's not immediately apparent, maybe Brown and his staff just wanted to do a little late-game experimenting to see what works for future reference, or maybe Brown just figured What the Hell. He's earned enough of our trust thusfar that I don't feel right questioning his motives at this point, and even if taking is the driving factor...well, this is the NBA world we live in right now, and it might be for the best when all is said and done.

Still, it's worth noting that the Sixers have lost three straight games now, and in two of them they didn't seem to try their hardest to escape with the win. If the team continues to fold from here, we may look back at this three-game stretch as the moment when the Sixers patted themselves on the back for a surprisingly exciting start to the season, figured that was good enough for now, and figured we'd play out the string and try again next year. Hard to disagree with that line of thinking, though it might make the second half of the season a lot more of a chore to watch than the first.

Eagles-Vikings Week 7: What they're saying

Eagles-Vikings Week 7: What they're saying

Riding a two-game losing streak, the Eagles (3-2) return home Sunday for the first time in nearly a month and welcome a familiar face to the confines of Lincoln Financial Field. 

Sam Bradford and the Vikings (5-0) will come to Philadelphia fresh off a Week 6 bye and, most notably, as the league's lone unbeaten team. Minnesota boasts one of the league's top defenses, ranking first in points allowed (12.6 per game) and second in yards allowed (287.6 per game), and is looking to improve to 6-0 for the first time since 2009.

The last time these two franchises met was back in December 2013, when Matt Cassell and the Vikings put up 48 points in a win over Chip Kelly's Eagles.

To get a better handle on this year's Vikings, here's what they're saying about the Eagles' Week 7 opponent.

Brian Robison poses yet another challenge for Big V
Making his NFL debut in a start against the Redskins last week, Halapoulivaati Vaitai struggled mightily. Ryan Kerrigan beat Vaitai and got to Carson Wentz for 2½ sacks, all of which came in the first half.

It won't get any easier for the rookie right tackle this week either, as he'll likely be lined up against Brian Robison for most of the afternoon. Robison has four sacks and two forced fumbles on the season and, according to Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune, the versatile 10-year defensive end could be difference maker on the defensive side of the ball Sunday.

"Whether his hand is in the turf at left end or he’s standing over a guard or center as the defensive tackle, Robison could be dropping back to cover a tight end or running back," Krammer wrote. "At the line, he’s given responsibilities to call stunts or twists depending on their own play call. Sometimes he’s setting the pick to free another teammate. ... And on Sunday against the Eagles and their rookie right tackle, keep an eye on Robison when he lines up at his traditional spot of left end. All four of his sacks this season, including two strip-sacks, have come from there."

Makeshift offensive line remains a question mark
The Vikings may be undefeated, but by no means are they made up of perfect parts. As the midway point of the NFL season approaches, Minnesota's injury-battered offensive line is still a work in progress. 

Starting tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith are both sidelined with season-ending injuries. Starting guard Brandon Fusco suffered a concussion Week 5 against the Texans, but is expected to return against the Eagles. Center is the only position on the line the Vikings haven't had to replace because of an injury at some point this season.

But despite the constant changes up front, Minnesota has been stout overall in protecting the quarterback, allowing eight sacks and 27 quarterback hits across five games. According to Brian Murphy of the Pioneer Press, the performance of that makeshift offensive line is going to be key in the Vikings' potential success down the road. 

"What’s best for Bradford and the Vikings’ standing as the NFC’s top dog is better pass protection," Murphy wrote. "He was sacked twice when Houston defenders turnstiled Clemmings and hit hard in the pocket other times. ... Offensive line intrigue never is a sexy storyline, but how well the Vikings manage the unit week to week figures to be an underlying factor to their continued success."

Strong away from home
The Vikings are a just a few years removed from going winless on the road, finishing 0-7-1 away from home in the 2013 season. Minnesota secured wins in only two of its first 10 away games under the tutelage of Mike Zimmer, but have since gone on a tear.

Minnesota has won seven of its last eight road games dating back to last season and, in their most recent game away from U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings took down the Panthers, 22-10, in Week 3. A testament of a true contender is having the ability to win consistently on the road, which holds true with the Vikings.

According to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, the Vikings' vast improvement over the past two-plus seasons has contributed to them becoming a stronger team away from home.

"Facing a tough opposing crowd once was a tall order for the Vikings, but it’s much less of one now. After being one of the worse road teams in the NFL earlier this decade, they’re now one of the best," Tomasson wrote. "Overall, the Vikings have improved, having gone from 7-9 in 2014 to 11-5 last season to 5-0 this year. That’s the main reason the road record has gotten so much better. Still, players say the continuity the team has had has especially helped when entering rugged road environments."

While Vegas has the Vikings as light favorites on the road, national experts have them heavily favored straight up to hand the Eagles their third straight loss.

ESPN: All nine experts picked the Vikings

CBS Sports: Seven of eight experts picked the Vikings

FOX Sports: Three of five experts picked the Vikings 

Flyers Skate Update: Ivan Provorov has a new partner

Flyers Skate Update: Ivan Provorov has a new partner

Ivan Provorov has a new partner.

Provorov will be paired with Brandon Manning on Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, a changeup from the first four games of the season. Mark Streit drops to the third pair with Nick Schultz, a tandem that worked together most of last season.

"We're going to change them up," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said after the team's morning skate. "We're going to look at a couple of different things. Some of the combinations are some familiar ones, such as Streiter-Schultz. They played a lot of minutes together last year. It's a move that we want to take a look at."

The Provorov-Manning pair is an interesting one. It should allow the 19-year-old to activate more in the offensive zone with Manning playing positionally sound. Manning has played with an extra edge thus far, showcasing a far more aggressive brand of hockey than he's shown previously with the orange and black.

With Streit, an offensive-minded blueliner, Provorov had to cover for his partner. Provorov also ran into some tough luck situations, too. Now with Manning, Provorov has the handcuffs off a little bit. Manning plays well positionally and while he has been more aggressive, he knows when to stay back, which will help Provorov.

It's another adjustment for the rookie. Through four games, he said, there haven't been any surprises in terms of his expectations for how the NHL game plays.

"I think what I expected is what I got," Provorov said. "It's the best league in the world, you expect all four lines to be great, you expect fast pace, physical game and that's what I got. I'm still learning, but I'm trying to do better as the games go on."

Provorov has one assist this season and enters Saturday as a minus-5, largely because of the Chicago game Tuesday. Hakstol praised Provorov's maturity level and ability to self-evaluate. What he hasn't done with Provorov is talk about numbers.

"There are some meaning in stats and we take the meaningful areas and apply those," Hakstol said. "But I haven't talked to any of the young guys about their statistics. We're four games in. I don't make too much of statistics right now. We're evaluating day-to-day play and looking at areas that we can use as strengths and areas individually we can improve."

Starting slow
If there has been one common theme through the first four games, it's the Flyers' poor starts. In first periods this season, they've been outscored, 6-1 (see game notes).

On Thursday night, the Flyers again came out of the gates slow. It was their first game back after a season-opening road trip out West, which Jakub Voracek said was a factor.

Voracek, who has four assists, said the burden falls on the individual player to focus on the small details and avoid committing mistakes.

"As a player, if you don't have that extra step, you just have to keep it simple," he said. "It's going to come around. The first 10 minutes, you have to make sure you don't make mistakes and I think that we were trying to do too much if we weren't feeling right. It showed last game against Anaheim. We were a half-a-step slower."

Four games isn't a large enough sample size for Hakstol to make a definite statement on the Flyers' first-period woes. The second-year coach said he'll have a better understanding where his team is at after the Carolina game.

"I think we'll answer that question after the start tonight," Hakstol said. "I think we'll get a fair evaluation of our starts after our start tonight, and if we have a problem, we'll know it after tonight. If we don't, we'll know that as well.

"Pretty clear, crystal clear, black and white in my mind. Tonight should tell else what type of team we are at the start of the hockey game."

Projected Flyers Lineup
F: Brayden Schenn-Claude Giroux-Wayne Simmonds

Travis Konecny-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek

Nick Cousins-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Matt Read

Chris VandeVelde-Boyd Gordon-Roman Lyubimov

D: Andrew MacDonald-Shayne Gostisbehere

Ivan Provorov-Brandon Manning

Nick Schultz-Mark Streit

G: Steve Mason