Who Are You and What Have You Done With Damien Wilkins?

Who Are You and What Have You Done With Damien Wilkins?

The reasons for the Sixers' surprisingly improved proved play of
late—four wins in their last seven games, including victories over the
playoff-bound Nets and Pacers and extremely close losses to the
NBA-hottest Heat and Nuggets—are many. The team's frontcourt has been
playing dramatically better: Spencer Hawes has averaged a 16/10 on 56%
shooting over the stretch, and Thaddeus Young, finally healthy again
after missing a couple weeks with a hamstring strain, has matched with a
17/7 on 55% shooting. Dorell Wright has also rediscovered his Golden
State shooting stroke, averaging 12 a game and shooting 19 of 38 from
deep, and with the exception of a dismal two-point performance in Los
Angeles, Jrue Holiday has been Jrue Holiday, averaging about 17 points
and nine assists, shooting 48% from deep and even keeping his turnover
average to under three a game.


But the most surprising reason for the Sixers' hot stretch is
undoubtedly the play of Damien Wilkins. Signed as an emergency-valve
veteran wing player at season's beginning, Wilkins was the source of
much mockery for Sixers fans earlier in the season for Coach Collins'
insistence on playing him big minutes, despite the fact that he was a
33-year-old career bench scrub blocking younger, more skilled players
like Wright and even rookie Arnett Moultrie from getting minutes they
seemed more deserving of. And the numbers justified the scorn—before
March, Damien was averaging just 2.6 points a game on 37% shooting
(including a dismal 13% from deep) in ten minutes of game action, with a
PER in the not-high single digits.


Remarkably, however, all that appears to have changed in March. In
12 games this month—eight of which Wilkins even started—Damien is
averaging a highly respectable 12 points on 54% shooting, including 39%
from deep. He's even proven himself to be a decent secondary playmaker
since moving to the starting lineup, posting three or more assists in
five of his eight starts. For arguably the first time since his days
playing with the Ray Allen-led Sonics in Seattle, Damien Wilkins is a
productive, relevant professional basketball player again.


The thing that really strikes me about Wilkins this last month or so
is the energy and athleticism he brings to the team—neither of which
you would exactly expect a 33-year-old career benchwarmer to provide
your ballclub. (To be fair, Damien is the son of '90s lockdown defender
Gerald Wilkins, and the nephew of Hall-of-Fame scorer and slam dunk
champion Dominique Wilkins, so genetics are obviously on his side.) The
Sixers have been playing at a much faster pace in recent games, and
Wilkins is a big catalyst for that, constantly moving in the half-court,
running to the corners on the secondary break, and attacking the basket
wherever possible. He hasn't been the team's MVP over this
stretch—that'd probably be Thad, or maybe even Spence—but he's been the
guy most representative of the team's new style and improved efficiency.


The one real negative of Wilkins' improvement as of late is that it
reflects kind of negatively on one of his much-higher-upside wingmates:
Evan Turner. While much of the team has hit an individual groove the
last two weeks, Evan's play could most generously be described as
"unexceptional"—under 11 points, four rebounds and four assists a game,
including 42% shooting and 21% from deep. Worse, despite being nearly a
decade older, Damien consistently outworks Evan on the court, cutting
harder, pushing faster on the break, switching and fighting through
screens better on defense. Tellingly, is lineup the Sixers have found
the most success with recently is one with Damien and Dorell on the
wings and Evan on the bench—they've only played about 34 minutes
together as a five-man unit, but 82Games.com lists it as the Sixers' lineup with the highest win percentage.


And of course, the other negative about the Wilkins surge is that
not only is it helping the team win meaningless games in the
short-term—wins hurting their draft position, if you care about such
things—but it means the team might make an effort to re-sign the
33-year-old, costing them precious cap space and sending a message that
being competent is still more important to this franchise than
potentially being great. Still, Damien's played a big part in making an
unwatchable team watchable this season, and for those of us who will
continue to watch the team regardless, that's something to be pretty
thankful for.

Best of NFL: Tom Brady on target, leads Patriots to win in preseason debut

Best of NFL: Tom Brady on target, leads Patriots to win in preseason debut

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tom Brady looked sharp in his preseason debut, throwing a 33-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan in helping the New England Patriots to a 19-17 preseason win over the Carolina Panthers on Friday night.

Brady relieved Jimmy Garoppolo late in the first quarter and completed a 37-yard pass to Aaron Dobson on his first play from scrimmage, leading to a field goal. On his second drive Brady heaved a perfectly placed over-the-shoulder pass to Hogan down the right sideline for a 9-0 lead. Brady's other two drives failed to produce points.

While Brady was on the mark, league MVP Cam Newton struggled mightily in his most extensive playing time of the preseason. Newton was intercepted twice and the Panthers failed to get any points on his eight first-half possessions. Overall, the Panthers scored just three points in 10 Newton-led drives.

The sixth-year quarterback was high on some passes and didn't get much help from his receivers, who had problems getting separation and dropped four passes, including one by Brenton Bersin on a fourth-and-2 at midfield.

New England's defense shut down the league's highest-scoring offense from a year ago. They also intercepted Derek Anderson and allowed only one passing play of more than 15 yards in the first half.

Garoppolo, expected to start the first four games for the Patriots while Brady serves a suspension for his role in "Deflategate," returned in the second quarter but couldn't get anything going.

In the third quarter he rolled out of the pocket while under pressure and missed an open receiver who'd gotten behind the defense. His six drives resulted in no points, although Stephen Gostkowski missed a 30-yard field goal on the New England's opening possession (see full recap).

Redskins overcome slow start to beat Bills
LANDOVER, Md. -- Kirk Cousins found a groove and undrafted rookie running back Robert Kelley made the most of his chance and the Washington Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills 21-16 Friday night in the third preseason game.

With the Bills (1-2) resting almost their entire starting defense, Cousins overcame a rough start to finish 12 of 23 for 188 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

Despite coming mostly against Buffalo's second- and third-stringers, it was an important recovery for Cousins, who had thrown only five passes in the preseason and didn't play last week in an effort to test backup Colt McCoy.

Kelley ran for 51 yards on 12 carries in a personal showcase with Matt Jones and Chris Thompson out and after seventh-round pick Keith Marshall sprained his left elbow on his only carry of the game.

Bills starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor played only two series, by coach Rex Ryan's design, going 2 of 5 for 11 yards before being replaced by E.J. Manuel.

Ryan also opted to rest running back LeSean McCoy and several key defenders, including defensive tackle Kyle Williams, linebacker Jerry Hughes and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore.

Coach Jay Gruden took a more conventional dress-rehearsal approach to the third preseason game for the Redskins (2-1) and got the kind of performances he'd like to see from top players such as tight end Jordan Reed, receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, left tackle Trent Williams and cornerback Josh Norman.

Reed, Garcon and receiver Ryan Grant each caught a touchdown pass from Cousins, and Norman looked sharp on defense along with second-year linebacker Preston Smith and lineman Ziggy Hood (see full recap).

Roethlisberger shreds defense in Steelers' win over Saints
NEW ORLEANS -- Ben Roethlisberger torched New Orleans' defense for 148 yards and two touchdown passes on his first two series of this preseason, then got the rest of the game off while the Steelers rolled to a 27-14 victory over the Saints on Friday night.

Roethlisberger, who sat out of the first two preseason games, opened by leading a 14-play, 76-yard drive on which he converted two third downs and found tight end Jesse James for a 5-yard score. His next series was highlighted by his 57-yard scoring pass down the left sideline to Antonio Brown, also playing for the first time this preseason. The Steelers star finished with 12 completions on 17 attempts.

Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell also made his preseason debut, gaining 21 yards on three carries, but his lost fumble in the second quarter -- forced by cornerback Delvin Breaux and recovered by linebacker Dannell Ellerbe -- led to Drew Brees' only TD pass. Brees' strike went to Willie Snead, who made a difficult juggling catch as he landed on his back following a collision near the back of the end zone.

Brees had a difficult night behind a struggling offensive line. It didn't help that starting left tackle Terron Armstead left the field unexpectedly in the first half for undisclosed reasons. Brees completed 9 of 12 passes, but for only 78 yards. One of his better throws connected with newly acquired tight end Coby Fleener for 26 yards, but it was called back for holding on Armstead.

The Saints have dropped all three preseason games.

Steelers backup Landry Jones went 19 of 22 for 206 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates. He also completed a 58-yard pass to Coates to set up Chris Boswell's 40-yard field goal (see full recap).

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK – The New York Mets set the tone for this game early on Friday night. Their first two batters stroked Adam Morgan fastballs over the wall and they were off and slugging to a 9-4 win over the Phillies at Citi Field (see Instant Replay).
 
“There’s not much to say,” manager Pete Mackanin said afterward, “other than we have to pitch better.”
 
The Mets, very much in the thick of the NL wild-card race, played inspired ball in powering their way to their fifth win in the last six games. They hit four home runs on the night, including three against Morgan, and got a typically strong start from Bartolo Colon.
 
“It’s never good when you start a game by giving up two home runs,” Morgan said. “If I make better pitches, it’s a different outcome.”
 
The third home run that Morgan gave up was the killer. It was a grand slam by Wilmer Flores with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. That turned a 2-1 Mets’ lead into a 6-1 Mets’ lead.
 
Flores’ grand slam came on a first-pitch slider. Morgan threw nine pitches before walking Neil Walker, the previous batter, to extend the inning. One of those pitches was foul pop down the right-field line that Ryan Howard could not chase down. Had he been able to make the tough play, Morgan would have gotten out of the inning unscathed.
 
Then again, the pitcher could have gotten out of the inning unscathed if he did not give up the two-out walk to Walker.
 
Or make a mistake with the first-pitch slider to Flores.
 
“It was a bad pitch,” Mackanin said. “He tried to backdoor a slider and it ended up in his wheelhouse.”
 
As for the pop-up down the right-field line …
 
“I was hoping somebody could run that down,” Mackanin said. “Nevertheless, you’ve got to pitch around those things and make good pitches. That mistake to Flores put it away for them. Morgan had command issues. Too many pitches out over the plate.”
 
In all, Morgan allowed eight hits, including five for extra bases, in his five innings of work. He dropped to 1-8 and his ERA rose to 6.50.
 
Reliever Frank Herrmann gave up the Mets’ fourth homer, a two-run shot to Asdrubal Cabrera in the sixth. Cabrera homered from both sides of the plate.
 
Meanwhile, Colon, the Mets’ 43-year-old control artist, did what he often does to the Phillies. He gave up just three hits and a run through seven innings before hitting the wall and giving up three runs without getting an out in the eighth. Colon had to settle for seven-plus innings of four-run ball. He is 12-7 with a 3.44 ERA. He is 9-3 with a 2.98 ERA against the Phillies as a member of the Mets.
 
“He seems to own us,” Mackanin said. “We can’t seem to square up the ball against him. He does a tremendous job with control and command.”
 
Peter Bourjos concurred.
 
“He’s different than any pitcher you see these days,” Bourjos said. “You don’t see many guys throwing mostly fastballs at 88 mph and sinking it. You see some guys throwing a majority of sinkers, but it’s 95. This guy changes speeds on his fastball and locates it so well.”
 
The game marked the Phillies’ first without Carlos Ruiz, who was traded to the Dodgers on Thursday. Jorge Alfaro came up from Double A and served as the backup catcher. He is expected to return to the Reading club on Saturday when A.J. Ellis arrives. The Phillies picked up the veteran backup catcher in the trade.
 
Alfaro did not play, but called the experience of coming to the majors “a dream.”
 
That was the only thing that resembled a dream for the Phillies on Friday night.
 
They have lost 20 of 29 games to the Mets over the last two seasons and 12 of their last 16 in Citi Field, hardly encouraging with two more games to play in the series.

Soul fight off Rattlers' comeback bid, win ArenaBowl XXIX

Soul fight off Rattlers' comeback bid, win ArenaBowl XXIX

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Prior to ArenaBowl XXIX, the consensus among players and coaches was the team which makes fewer mistakes had a reasonable chance to win.

When the Arizona Rattlers committed two critical turnovers in the initial minutes Friday night, the Soul jumped out to an early lead and then capitalized on big plays from the defense to earn a 56-42 win and their second ArenaBowl title in franchise history.

The championship is the first for a professional team in Philadelphia since the Soul and Phillies each took individual titles in 2008. Villanova captured the men’s NCAA basketball championship this past April.

Coming into the title game at Gila River Arena, Arizona averaged 83.0 points per game in postseason play, and the Soul defense, which averaged 45.5 points allowed in playoff competition, did not deviate from its norm.

“We trust in our defense,” said defensive back Dwayne Hollis, who scored on an early fumble recovery and had a key interception late. “The fumble was great work from the line. A few guys got in there and the ball came loose. I was able pick it up and I only saw the end zone.”

This one started in a way all too familiar to the Soul defense.

Following a 16-yard touchdown reception from Darius Reynolds, and an early 7-0 Soul lead, Hollis scored just over three minutes later. That’s when he picked up the fumble from Rattlers running back Mykel Benson and ran 48 yards for the score.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Rattlers’ Anthony Amos could not handle the rebound off the netting in the end zone and Tracy Belton, the AFL Defensive Player of the Year, scooped up the loose ball for a touchdown. That brought the Soul out to a 21-0 lead less than seven minutes into the game, and created a relatively secure comfort level.

“We go against those guys every day in practice, and know how good our defense really is,” said quarterback Dan Raudabaugh, who finished with a 20-for-36 night, 278 yards and six touchdowns. “This is such a great defense, and they proved it when it counted.”

Despite an early lead, the Rattlers managed to catch the Soul at 42-42 early in the fourth quarter. On the next possession, Raudabaugh engineered a six-play scoring drive that culminated in a 21-yard TD strike to Shaun Kauleinamoku. After the extra point was blocked, that created a six-point lead, and then the key defensive play of the game.

As Arizona quarterback Nick Davila attempted to pass from the Soul 15-yard line, his arm was hit and defensive tackle Jake Metz recovered. From there, Raudabaugh connected with Kauleinamoku on a 30-yard scoring strike, and this one was in the win column for the Soul.

“Our defense is persistent,” said Metz, a native of Souderton, Pennsylvania, who went to Shippensburg University. “This group never gives up, and we did our job.”

In postgame awards, Kauleinamoku was named the Playmaker of the Game, and Belton was honored as the Defensive Player of the Game.

For his key 30-yard TD reception late in the game, Kauleinamoku was given the Catch of the Game, and Hollis’ fumble recovery and touchdown early was noted as the Highlight of the Game.