Mirror Images: Flyers Face Lightning, Themselves

Mirror Images: Flyers Face Lightning, Themselves

What a difference six weeks can make. When the Flyers last
encountered the Tampa Bay Lightning on February 5, they were one of the most
dangerous teams in the NHL, averaging nearly five goals per game en route to a
6-2 start. But while the Bolts are still second in the league in scoring, those
numbers have sagged quite a bit – as has their record along with it.

Tampa Bay is in the same boat as Philadelphia now. Since the
Flyers exacted some revenge in a 2-1 victory, the Lightning have gone 6-13-1, putting
them right about even with each other in the playoff race – which is to say toward
the rear of the pack. The similarities run much deeper than in the standings
though. Both squads are laden with talent up front, but are defensively-challenged
and face difficult questions in net.

They sound like clones in certain respects, only the
Lightning seem even more prone to wildly uneven performances from night to
night if that’s possible. They have the ability to hang a five-spot on
any given opponent, but too often the offensive output is merely ordinary,
lighting the lamp 2.65 times per tilt over their last 20. That simply isn’t
good enough in their current situation.

Still, it’s almost impossible to look at the two clubs and
not draw any comparisons. Perhaps the biggest difference is Tampa appears to be
in more of a state of freefall, whereas the Flyers just can’t stop spinning
their wheels whenever they get set to take off. Philly hasn’t won three consecutive
games at any point this season, but they haven’t lost more than that many in a
row, either.

The Lightning have experienced a total reversal of fortune.
The Flyers have never really budged at all.

Why such inconsistency? The Flyers have their share of flaws,
yet in a gritty 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Friday, they proved
how tough they are to beat when they choose to tighten up at their own end of
the ice, not to mention how the goaltender suddenly develops confidence when
odd-man rushes are no longer constantly bearing down on him.

General manager Paul Holmgren heaped the lion’s share of the
blame for the franchise’s struggles this season on the players last week.
Basically he challenged every man in that locker room to look in the mirror and
accept responsibility for where the team is at. So far they’ve responded, but
we’ve seen them bounce back before only to flat-line once again. Actually, we’ve
seen that on numerous occasions already.

The Flyers will be skating against the Lightning tonight,
but the question is whether the biggest roadblock standing in the path to the
postseason truly is their own mindset. The answer, it seems, varies from one game to the next.

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Sixers-Bucks 5 things: Joel Embiid back to face the 'Greek Freak'

Sixers-Bucks 5 things: Joel Embiid back to face the 'Greek Freak'

Sixers at Bucks
3:30 p.m. - CSN/CSNPhilly.com/streaming live on the NBCSports App

The Sixers (12-26) look to get back in the win column when they face the Milwaukee Bucks (20-19) at the Bradley Center in a Martin Luther King Day matinee.

Let's take a closer look at Monday afternoon's matchup:

1. Back on the Embiid express
The Sixers have started to show flashes of coming together and finally turning the corner on their massive rebuild. However, they are nowhere near the point that they can remove the biggest piece of the puzzle and still expect to win games.

The Sixers found that out again on Saturday night, as they were pummeled during the second half of a 109-93 loss to the Washington Wizards with Joel Embiid sidelined for rest.

The team didn't want to use the rookie phenom's absence as an excuse, but it was clear his presence was missed.

“We didn’t have that extra oomph,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the loss. “Obviously, the omission of Joel Embiid clearly is impactful, but that’s the challenge. We just didn’t have it tonight.”

Embiid and his 19.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game will be back in the lineup against the Bucks.

2. Freak of nature
The Sixers won't be the only squad with a star in the making on the court Monday afternoon.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has shown plenty of potential since he was selected by the Bucks 15th overall in the 2013 draft (Anthony Bennett, who was recently released by the Brooklyn Nets, was taken No. 1 overall that year, for those of you keeping track at home). But the man known as "The Greek Freak" has taken his game to new heights this season.

Antetokounmpo is averaging 23.4 points on 53.5 percent shooting in addition to 8.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.8 steals per game this season - all career highs. He's also coming off a 33-point, eight-rebound and six-assist performance in the Bucks' 111-98 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday.

With Antetokounmpo playing point guard full time now and the Bucks' starting five boasting players all above 6-foot-7, it's hard to determine how the Sixers will match up on defense. Whatever the plan is to slow down "The Greek Freak," it will have to be a total team effort.

3. Protect the paint
All of that size and athleticism for the Bucks is a big reason they attack the rim so much. Milwaukee is tied with Oklahoma City for the league lead in points in the paint with 50.6 per game.

The Sixers were dominated on the low block for 54 points by the Wizards on Saturday with Embiid out. For the season, they rank 14th in the league in points in the paint allowed at 42.3 a night.

One thing that might help the Sixers is their shot blocking. They swat 5.6 shots a game (sixth in the NBA), which could deter some of those romps to the rim by the Bucks.

4. Injuries
T.J. McConnell (right wrist), Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out for the Sixers.

Khris Middleton (hamstring) is out for the Bucks.

5. This and that
• The Sixers have lost 12 of their last 14 games to the Bucks.

• Ersan Ilyasova spent the first seven seasons of his NBA career with the Bucks (see story on his return to Milwaukee). This will mark the fourth time he has faced his former team.

• Jabari Parker, selected No. 2 overall in the 2014 NBA draft right before Embiid, has emerged this season with 20.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

Sixers' T.J. McConnell (sprained right wrist) out Monday vs. Bucks

Sixers' T.J. McConnell (sprained right wrist) out Monday vs. Bucks

The Sixers will get Joel Embiid back in the lineup when they meet the Bucks on Monday afternoon in Milwaukee, but they'll be without their starting point guard.

T.J. McConnell will miss Monday's game with a sprained right wrist suffered in Saturday night's loss to the Wizards in D.C., the Sixers announced Monday morning.

McConnell reportedly did not travel with the team to Milwaukee and is back home in Philadelphia.

The 24-year-old McConnell has been a presence this season for a Sixers team that desperately needed something from the point guard spot. In 38 games this season, McConnell has averaged 4.8 points, 5.8 points and 4.8 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists a night in an average of 22.3 minutes a game.

The highlight of McConnell's season, of course, came last week when he nailed the game-winning shot at the buzzer to give the Sixers a 98-97 victory over the Knicks.

Sergio Rodriguez is expected to start in McConnell's place Monday against the Bucks.