How the Sixers Swept a Three-Game Road Trip and Turned Their Young Season Around

How the Sixers Swept a Three-Game Road Trip and Turned Their Young Season Around

OK, so maybe it's way too early to talk about any kind of season
"turnaround" with the Philadelphia 76ers. But after the Sixers got
smashed in a home-and-home by the Atlantic Division rival New York
Knicks with a combined 36-point margin of loss, it did quash a good deal
of the enthusiasm surrounding this team in the off-season, and
demonstrated that maybe the Sixers missed Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams
and Elton Brand more than we had previously expected they would—and that
maybe they needed Andrew Bynum's return to the lineup a little more
desperately, too.


But now here we are a week and three road games later, and things
are looking a whole lot sunnier. The Sixers grinded (ground?) out a
77-62 win in New Orleans on Wednesday, outplayed the division-favorite
Celtics to the tune of 106-100 on Friday, and then held off the Raptors
93-83 in Toronto. Now the Liberty Ballers sit at 4-2 on the season,
fourth in the East and behind only the Knicks in the Atlantic, with five
very winnable home games (against the Bucks, Pistons, Jazz, Cavaliers
and Raptors) coming up on their schedule. The dread is gone, and the
Sixers appear to be back where they were at the beginning of last year—a
very solid unit that beats up on lesser teams and gets clobbered by the
league's elite.


How did we get back here? Well, let's look at the five biggest factors that keyed the three-game surge:

1. Jrue's aggressiveness. Michael Levin of Liberty Ballers had an excellent post about this yesterday (given the appropriately exaggerated title "The Jrue Holiday Revolution"),
which can simply be summarized that Jrue is being a lot more assertive
with his play and decision-making, with predominantly excellent results.
Mike breaks down how Jrue is getting to the rim more and converting
more once there, shooting and making more threes, doubling his assist
rate and drawing more fouls—all without sacrificing any of his excellent
numbers in man defense. If you were looking for a team MVP throughout
the three-game win streak—or the entirety of the six-game season—it
would unquestionably be The Damaja.


It's worth pointing out that as much as the team's decisions to
trade Iguodala and let Sweet Lou walk in the off-season were about
clearing cap space and bringing in players like Andrew Bynum and Nick
Young, the real reason why we at the 700 Level believed it was
imperative to cut ties with those two guys was so we could finally let
our young guys, Jrue especially, take the reins with the team and see
what they could do with them. Based on his play so far, not only does
that appear to have been the right move for the team's future, but the
four-year, $41 million deal he signed after the season opener seems like
it could be a real bargain. If he can keep up this level of play, and
especially if he can cut down his sky-high turnover rate (5.6 a game, on
pace to break the all-time record), expect Holiday's name to be
mentioned in All-Star consideration.


2. Evan's rebounding (and freebie shooting). The
Extraterrestrial has been typically erratic on offense so far this year,
shooting a combined 7-25 through the team's first three games, then
matching those seven field goals in one game in New Orleans and
exploding for a team-high 25 against the Celtics. What has been
consistent with Evan Turner has been his spectacular rebounding,
particularly on the defensive end. His rebound totals for the six games
so far this season are 6, 11, 9, 8, 11 and 12, leading the team three
times and pacing the squad with his overall average of 9.5 a game. In
fact, his 8.2 defensive rebounds a game currently rate as seventh in the entire league.


This would be impressive for anyone, naturally, but coming from a
player like Turner, it's absolutely stunning. Only a handful of players
post rebounding numbers like that from a wing position (and none of them
do from the 2, which Evan has been playing with Jason Richardson out),
and those that do are typically athletic freaks like LeBron James or
sneaky-tall "small forwards" like Kevin Durant and Paul George. Evan is
listed at 6'7", and isn't particularly athletic or physically imposing
for his size, but he just has an incredible nose (and an irrepressible
motor) for rebounding, and given the minutes to do so, he's a threat to
pull down double-digits basically every night. So even on nights when
his shot isn't falling—which is probably gonna happen more often than
we'd like—E.T. is still gonna contribute with his rebounding, at the
very least.


Also worth monitoring with Evan so far this season: His free-throw
shooting. Turner was rather subpar for a wing player from the free-throw
line last year, shooting just 67.6% from the stripe, lower than just
about every frontcourt player the team had. The only reason he didn't
take more flak for his lousy line performance was that he barely ever
got there, averaging just over two attempts per 36 minutes. This season,
not only is Evan getting to the line more—up to 4.2 attempts per
36—he's converting at a beastly 87.5% clip once there, a team-best,
including going 15-15 to start the season.


Turner's charity-stripe excellence has been rewarded by Coach
Collins, as Collins now allows Turner to shoot the team's technical-foul
shots, even with Holiday (a career 80% from the line) and Nick Young
(career 83%) on the floor. Whether the improved free-throw shooting is a
result of off-season practice or simply increased confidence (no doubt
helped by the trust Collins now shows in him) is unclear, but both
trends will be important towards increasing Turner's offensive
efficiency this season—tellingly, even though he's shooting a career-low
37.9% from the field this season, his PER is also at a career-best
13.8.


3. Nick Young and Dorell Wright's reacquired swag. It's hard
to put into words just how bad Nick Young was on offense throughout the
team's first four games—though one number, a PER of 0.2, certainly gets
us at least part of the way there. Young just wasn't hitting from
anywhere in any situation, and as a player who doesn't fill out many
non-shooting columns in the box score, all we could do was hope that his
shooting being this streaky in one direction would eventually be
balanced by it being equally streaky in the other direction. Swagy P
hasn't been quite as good in the last two games as he was bad in the
first four, but he's getting closer, going a combined 11-21 and 3-7 from
deep, providing the bench scoring from the perimeter the team so
desperately needed.


Meanwhile, Dorell Wright wasn't quite so miserable in the team's
first four games, but he certainly wasn't all that good. Along with the
soon-injured Jason Richardson, we went into this season relying on
Wright to provide the three-point shooting that was to be a crucial
element of this team's offensive attack, but through the first four he
was shooting just 7-27 from deep, a lousy 26% clip. He's regained the
stroke in the last two, though, shooting a combined 6-11, including four
triples last night that helped amend for off nights on offense from
Jrue and Evan.


In fact, last night's game was a great all-around demonstration of
the second-unit boost Nick and Dorell can give this team—not just on
offense, but on defense, where the two helped lock down Toronto's
perimeter game, and helped hold the Raptors to just seven points in the
second quarter, getting the Sixers out to a 20-point lead that the
Raptors were able to cut into but could never quite overcome. Both
players might be streaky and inconsistent throughout the season, but
it's just good to see that the potential for both to be real
contributors is definitely there.


4. Thaddeus Young's consistency. Look at these game-by-game-numbers for Thad so far:

Vs. DEN: 13 points on 6-12 shooting, 5 rebounds
Vs. NYK: 16 points on 7-14 shooting, 6 rebounds
Vs. NYK: 14 points on 7-12 shooting, 10 rebounds

Vs. NOR: 12 points on 6-8 shooting, 10 rebounds
Vs. BOS: 15 points on 7-13 shooting, 5 rebounds
Vs. TOR: 16 points on 5-11 shooting, 8 rebounds

You
getting the general idea yet? On a team seemingly stocked entirely with
feast-or-famine-type players, Thaddeus Young has been an absolute rock
for this team, similar to how Elton Brand was as the team's starting
power forward back in '10-'11. You know nearly exactly what you're gonna
get with Thad every night—he's gonna score between 12-18 points on
around 50% shooting, and grab you 5-10 rebounds. He'll miss at least one
bunny and he'll get screwed out of at least one whistle, but he'll also
get you a steal or two, make a smart interior pass or two, and he won't
turn the ball over much.


It seems unlikely at this point that Thaddeus is ever gonna develop
into a star, like we hoped he might when he signed his five-year, $42
million contract a couple off-seasons ago, but if he keeps giving us
that kind of night-in, night-out production (and doesn't get matched up
with Carmelo Anthony too often on the other end), he'll be a legit
starter in this league for a long time.


5. Royal Ivey's...Royal Iveyness. All right, so the
Cheesburger probably won't end up playing a big part in this season or
any general part of Philadelphia 76ers history, but you gotta respect
Royal's contributions through four games as the team's primary backup
point guard. He's not doing too much—making smart reads, playing good
defense and hitting open shots, absolutely none of which were being done
by our backup point to start the season, Malik Wayns, still yet to
register a point this season.


I wouldn't be surprised if Wayns figures it out a little bit and
ends up taking the backup PG slot back from Ivey before season's end,
but for now, all we really need is Ivey to be solid enough to spell Jrue
for a handful of minutes a half and and give them another playmaking
option in the back court. He's more than done that so far, especially
with his eight points, five assists and zero turnovers against the
Raptors last night. Good looking out, Royal.


Honorable mention to Spencer Hawes and his 10 points and
eight boards a game off the bench over the three-game stretch, and to
the team's overall defense, which held the Hornets to a franchise-low 62
points on Wednesday and has the second-lowest opponents points-per-game
average in the league (88.7) thusfar.

Howie Kendrick hit by pitch twice, removed from rehab start at Triple A

Howie Kendrick hit by pitch twice, removed from rehab start at Triple A

Howie Kendrick experienced a painful rehab start on Thursday night.

Rehabbing with Triple A Lehigh Valley, Kendrick was hit by a pitch twice before being removed after the sixth inning of the IronPigs' 8-4 loss to Indianapolis at Coca-Cola Park.

Both times Kendrick was plunked in the upper left arm, according to Tom Housenick of the Morning Call.

There was no update on if Kendrick was injured or taken out for precautionary reasons. Thursday marked Kendrick's second rehab start as he recovers from an oblique strain that has sidelined him since April 15.

The Phillies' leftfielder started at third base Thursday. At the start of his rehab assignment, Kendrick was expected to play four games and see time at third and first base, as well as in left field.

Kendrick made a throwing error at third on Thursday and finished 0 for 1 with a run scored. In his two games, he's 0 for 3 with two strikeouts.

Kendrick hit .333 with four doubles, a triple and five RBIs in 10 games with the Phillies prior to landing on the DL.

When he returns, he could see time at third base instead of left field if Maikel Franco continues to struggle (see story).

NBA Playoffs: LeBron James makes history as Cavaliers roll into Finals

NBA Playoffs: LeBron James makes history as Cavaliers roll into Finals

BOX SCORE

BOSTON -- LeBron James scored 35 points and passed Michael Jordan to become the NBA's all-time playoff scoring leader as the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics 135-102 on Thursday night to claim their third straight Eastern Conference title and a return trip to the NBA Finals.

Kyrie Irving added 24 points and Kevin Love finished with 15 for the Cavs, who never trailed and led by as many as 39 points in one of their most dominating wins of the series. The Cavs set an NBA record by winning their 13th consecutive series closeout opportunity.

Cleveland's 4-1 series' win gives it a 12-1 record this postseason and sets up a third consecutive matchup with Western Conference champion Golden State, the team it beat in the Finals last season to claim the franchise's first championship.

It will mark the seventh straight trip to the Finals for James.

Avery Bradley led Boston with 23 points.

The Cavaliers basically conceded the East's top seed to the Celtics at the end of the regular season by opting to rest its starters in advance of the playoffs. But they displayed their superiority over the final two games to wrap up the series.

After allowing the Celtics to seize the early momentum in Game 4, the Cavs barely gave them the chance in Game 5.

Led by its Big Three, Cleveland quickly built a 21-point lead in the first quarter, while getting lots of contributions from their teammates.

Love continued to knock down shots from the outside, Irving sliced his way into the lane to the rim and James got free for several of his one-handed, tomahawk dunks.

It was a very welcomed sight in Irving's case, after he rolled his left ankle in the third quarter of Cleveland's Game 4 win. He showed no signs of lingering issues, though, beating several defenders off the dribble and handing out seven assists.

Meanwhile, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver all helped spread out Boston's defenders by connecting on several wide-open scoring opportunities.

Deron Williams, who had been quiet for most of the series, also got in on the act with a series-best 14 points for Cleveland.

The Celtics did their best to keep up, but the consistent outside shooting, bench scoring and defense they relied on to stun Cleveland in Game 3 wasn't there Thursday night.

Tip-ins
Cavaliers: James has scored 30 or more points in 11 of Cleveland's 13 games this postseason. ... Improved to 36-5 against Eastern Conference opponents in the playoffs since 2015. ... The 43 points Cleveland scored in the first quarter set a team postseason record for points in a quarter.

Celtics: Injured point guard Isaiah Thomas led his teammates in a pregame huddle before they took the court for warmups. Thomas sat out the rest of the series after aggravating a hip injury in Game 2. ... Held a pregame moment of silence for the victims of the Manchester bombing. ... Were whistled for 16 fouls in the first half.