Represent: Flyers All-Stars Set to Rock in Ottawa at 4

Represent: Flyers All-Stars Set to Rock in Ottawa at 4

I don't know if it's my age or something going on in the sports themselves, but it feels like all-star games have taken a sharp downturn in terms of importance to fans in recent years. The NFL's Pro Bowl has long been somewhat laughable. The NBA All-Star Game is more spectacle than sport. Major League Baseball's Midsummer Classic attempted to inject relevance and competition by tying its outcome to a significant postseason element, and in so doing, pissed off the purists in its ranks.

Like the sport itself, the NHL's All-Star Game is something seemingly strictly for its own diehard fans, with little attention from outside media outlets or casual fans. Adding the element of a pair of captains choosing the sides gave it some new life last season though, and new media have also shown us more of how much the players enjoy the weekend. The league and the team have done a great job of posting videos and first-hand accounts to their own sites, which is fitting because the All-Star Game is a celebration of the simple fact that there is a league at all. No score is settled, no permanent rivalry revisited. Just players playing the game.

This season's game is a pretty special one for Flyers fans though, with three veterans and a pair of rookies representing Philadelphia up in Ottawa. So far, it's been a perfect representation, too.

Claude Giroux's presence is that of one of the league's truly elite forwards. The Flyers have had scoring depth in season after season, but it's been a long time since they had this kind of star power at the top. Scott Hartnell's All-Star story may trump G's though.

Philly loves an underdog, and to say Hartnell was a long shot for playing in this weekend when the season started is a bit of an understatement. But I think just about everyone would agree that since that time, he's flat out earned the opportunity to be recognized among the league's best players in the first half. And it certainly seems like he's enjoying it.

Harts has, unsurprisingly, had a life-of-the-party presence in Ottawa, tweeting his self-deprecation and appreciation throughout the weekend. And, in the skills competition, he showed that he's here because he is in fact skilled, not just a skilled pest. He and Giroux made sure to salute the linemate that helped them both get to Ottawa (see that, plus Hartnell's skill on the one-timers and a sweet breakway move by Sean Couturier in the video below).

Earlier this season, ESPN's Pierre LeBrun called Kimmo Timonen underappreciated. I'm not sure I'd agree with that being the case in Philly. It's nearly impossible to find a fan who has anything but appreciation for the Finnish veteran. We all know how much trouble the team would be in without him, and we're proud to see him still among the league's elite. Most of the All-Stars are pretty young, and Kimmo can still skate with them in any game.

After old man Timonen, the veteran Hartnell, and rising star Giroux, there are two very talented rookies showing the league that the future is bright in Philly. Couturier has played his ass off as a rookie, filling every role asked of him from checking line and PK duties to high lining and power plays. Matt Read finally found an NHL home, and a bunch of other franchises are kicking themselves for passing him up both in the draft and a handful of training camps.

SOME WTF IN THE LINES
At 4PM today, Giroux and Hartnell will be on one side, with Timonen on another, a fun if somewhat awkward twist. G's line will be centering Logan Couture and Steven Stamkos. Hartnell will skate with the Sedin twins. Goalies will rotate every period. Defense will lay off to the degree that "checks" should be listed in drinking games.

A LITTLE MAGIC LEFT IN THE TANK
Growing up, I loved All-Star weekend. I was a big NHL fan, loving the Flyers first and foremost, but having plenty of favorites in other cities as well. The Winter Classic and 24/7 have been a good reminder of the fact that their guys are human too, and Hartnell acknowledged the same effect hitting him as he had a blast with some rival Rangers up in Ottawa.

The score won't matter today, but we'll still be rooting for the Flyers to show 'em well. And for a #hartnelldown or two...

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.