Game 4: Can Flyers Complete the Let's Just Watch the Game.

Game 4: Can Flyers Complete the Let's Just Watch the Game.

I'm
usually someone who demands a reasonable amount of evidence before I
believe something. I don't consider myself a cynic, but I ordinarily
think there is more to a story than is presented, or less. And yet, when
it comes to sports in particular, I find that I'm entirely
superstitious. 

I shouldn't be anywhere near the internet today. Any
mention of the action one does with a broom makes me want to slam my
laptop shut. The cashier saw my shirt and asked for my prediction on the
game tonight, and I gave him my best Peter Laviolette deflection. I
refuse to think about the outcome of this game, and it pisses me off
that you're not all on board with me. 

Do the Flyers have the decided edge in this series?
Would it take a monumental, historic comeback for it not to end with
them advancing? Do the Penguins appear to be regressing rather than
getting back to elite standing? Yes, to all of that. 

But if the Flyers themselves are treating tonight
like anywhere near what I'm reading, hearing and doing my best not to
think… We'll be in for a game 5, at least. This series didn't end on
Sunday. Some pretty tough obstacles stand between the Flyers and a
celebration tonight. Let's take a look. 

The Other Team on the Ice (No, Not the Penguins)Thankfully,
although the Penguins' power play has recently started scoring on the
Flyers after a regular season of futility and a sluggish start in the
postseason, the Flyers' PK has been just about as productive. Tonight,
they may need to be again. The NHL is under the microscope after
suspensions 6, 7, and 8 were handed out last night, and #9 will likely
come tomorrow. The officials from game 3 of this series were criticized
for letting the game get out of hand. If either side wants to bring the
rough stuff, will the refs treat it like that final game of the season,
when run-of-the-mill rule-breaking resulted in ejections?

If so, who will it favor? Who does it usually favor?
To
add fuel to the fire, Hockey Buzz's Bill Meltzer points out a very
curious choice in the refereeing assignment tonight. I have a ton of
respect for Bill, and following him on twitter is highly recommended for
any Flyers fan.
He's a wealth of knowledge on factors that exceed the range of most
fans and many in the media. Today, he pointed out that the refs tonight
will be Chris Lee and Wes McCauley. Lee isn't a household name, which
can be a good thing, but in this case, Meltzer indicates it is in part
because Lee is one of the worst refs in the league and rarely gets the
call in the postseason. 

Tonight, a deciding contest between two teams that
have amassed as many penalty minutes as they have played, the calls will
be at the whim of a man whistling his fifth NHL postseason game despite
being in the league for 10 seasons. 
Poking the LionI don't
lose sleep over whether anyone's opinion regarding the Daily News'
coverage changes based on a joke they run on their cover. I don't
discredit anyone whose opinion is adversely affected, though my own was
not. I do, however, hate the fact that one of the greatest-ever Flyer
killers has a new decoration for his bulletin board. 

Again, my superstition getting in the way of reason? 
Reason
would dictate that the gauntlet was thrown down on Sidney Crosby well
before the paper was printed and handed to him by Lisa Hillary. Although
he's seen some success in spurts this series, he's made headlines for
all the wrong reasons. In fact, he's damn lucky the league's justice
system is based on punishing acts more so than preventing them, because
he was throwing gasoline on a powder keg in game 3, ultimately leading
to several explosions.

Does the all-world talent take over tonight, or will
his demons get the better of him again, forcing his teammates to focus
on protecting the star rather than passing to him?
Speaking
of his teammates… Man… I almost don't even want to mention #71. The
odds-on favorite for MVP has been locked in Sean Couturier's trunk for the past week. It's appeared as if Cooter is winning the matchup,
but Malkin is also in a slump. He's shooting wide, sloppily, and without
his usual precision. Is he frustrated by his competition, or just a
little off? 

Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed a historic amount of
goals through three games. The defense in front of him will be even more
banged up tonight, and the forward ranks a little thinner without the
three suspension recipients. But can he really be flogged this badly
four games in a row?

By now, I hope I've shaken all the black cats you
people have been throwing in my path to the game tonight. I'll be in the
building with a ticket, top row of the upper deck. I want to be SINGING
on my way out. But not til then… There's at least 60 more minutes of hockey
the Flyers need to treat like they did the last 60 minutes. Despite the
series record, this is not an opponent we want getting even a whiff of
its passion back…

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”