Sixers Handle Hawks: What Kind of Team Is This, Anyway?

Sixers Handle Hawks: What Kind of Team Is This, Anyway?

I was watching at halftime of ESPN's broadcast of the Knicks-Celtics
game from Friday on my DV-R, and they were reviewing highlights of the
Heat's close-for-three-quarters-turned-blowout win of the Sixers. One of
the commentators—maybe Jon Barry, I can't remember which one, they all
kind of suck—scoffed to one of the others (maybe Michael Wilbon) about
the Sixers: "I thought you said they were contenders?" Maybe-Wilbon had
no real recourse, except to sigh "Bad matchup."

This is sort of
how I feel right now with the Sixers. Last night, the Liberty Ballers
went to Atlanta to play the 16-7 Hawks, and they won handily, leading by
double digits for almost the entirety of the second half and leaving
with a 98-87 victory. (Sorry Sixers fans chilling at the WFC for some
reason, no Big Macs.) And it wasn't the win that impressed me so much,
but how unsurprising it was—I legitimately expected Philly to fly to
Atlanta on the second night of a back to back and show that they were
the better team. Which they did. Which they are. And then it occurs to
me—how many teams are out there now that I wouldn't feel confident with
the Sixers playing? Sure, I'd be a little nervous against the Thunder or
Clippers (the latter of whom we'll be seeing soon enough), but I'd
still think their chances are decent. Really, there are no teams left at
this point at which a Sixers win could legitimately be seen as
unexpected.

Except for the Heat.

The one test that the Sixers
have yet to pass, one which they don't appear particularly close to
passing anytime soon, is to Beat the friggin' Heat—Philly has now twice
played them about even for 30-36 minutes, yet completely lost their
handle in the final twelve minutes, finishing with final scores that
indicate a pretty wide gap between the two teams. And that gap, while
perhaps exaggerated by the final scores, is certainly no mirage—the Heat
are a better basketball team than we are, and will win the great
majority of the games the two teams play.

And yet—is that really
it? If the Heat are so much better than we are, how come they're just a
half-game higher than us in the standings? How did they lose to the
Bucks twice? How did they blow three straight road games on the West
Coast? Could it really be that, as maybe-Wilbon says, the Heat are just
an unfavorable matchup? It's true that with Wade and LeBron, they
nullify our biggest competitive advantage (our wing defense) somewhat,
and that our biggest weakness (post play, interior defense/rebounding)
is exposed somewhat with Chris Bosh and the team's endless reserve of
tall, high-energy rebounders. (Not to mention that we still haven't even
played them with Spencer Hawes and Nik Vucevic, our team's top two big
men, for a full game, and you saw their value last night, as we have all
season.)

So maybe the Sixers aren't that much worse a
team than the Heat, but just might not ever have much success against
them team-to-team. Does that alone mean that they're not considerable as
contenders in the NBA this year? Well...unfortunately, yeah, sorta.
It's hard to imagine a road to the finals that doesn't in some way lead
through Miami—unless Indiana knocked them off in the second round (or if
Milwaukee can repeat their shocking success in an eight-seed upset),
Philly will undoubtedly have to play them in the second or third round
of the Conference playoffs, assuming they get that far. In the '90s, how
many title contenders might there have been in the East if not for the
Jordan/Pippen/Jackson Bulls? But you can't hide from those guys forever,
and it's hard to consider the Sixers a legit title contender until they
have some legitimate level of success against them.

But anyway,
back to the Atlanta game, which turned out pretty cool. We finally got
both our young centers back, though we had to trade Elton Brand for 'em,
since EB was out with a sore thumb, giving rookie Lavoy Allen his
first-ever NBA start, though he only actually played 12 minutes. Hawes,
Vucevic and Allen between them scored 33 points on stunning 16 of 23
shooting, showing what an impressive roster of skilled big men this team
has assembled. There's still some work to go with these guys—the trio
grabbed just 12 rebounds between them and didn't even attempt a free
throw, which is pretty bad for three frontcourt players in 64 combined
minutes of game action—but man, am I glad to finally have all of them at
our disposal at once.

The bench was the big story last night,
as all four subs (including Vucevic with a team-high 15) scored in
double-digits. Evan Turner had a very nice game after some uninspiring
outings against Miami, Chicago and Orlando, scoring 11 points on 5-7
shooting—including a chuckle-worthy three that started out as an
alley-oop pass—with six rebounds and five assists. Perhaps more
importantly, he seemed to learn his lessons on defense from the team's
last game against Atlanta, where Tracy McGrady abused him one-on-one,
getting cheap fouls on The Extraterrestrial and out-maneuvering him for
easy buckets. This time, he played back on T-Mac and turned him
primarily into a distributor, holding him to seven points on 2-6
shooting, and not letting him impose his will on the game. Encouraging
moments from our second-year project.

Elswehere on the Night
Shift, Thaddeus Young continued his run of tremendous offensive play
with 14 points, five boards and even three assists, and Lou Williams
also contributed 14 and five dimes, hitting the game-clinching shot with
just over a minute to go. And also due some cred to two members of our
starting lineup—first, Jodie Meeks, who connected on a pair of threes
and now has hit multiple treys in seven of his last eight games, on pace
for a better year shooting from deep than any Sixer has had since Kyle
Korver. And then, of course, Andre Iguodala, whose All-Star push
continues with another near triple-double—nine points, eight rebounds
and ten assists, with just a single turnover. 'Dre is probably happier
than anyone to have Vuc and Hawes back, since both bigs play the
pick-and-pop so beautifully with our point forward, and his feeds were
damn on the money last night. (We'll let the 3-15 shooting slide for
now, since it wasn't really needed last night anyway).

So yeah, a nice road win for the Sixers, who 24 games into the season,
have still yet to lose consecutive games—a real testament to the team's
character and toughness, and one that the
increasingly-difficult-to-please Coach Collins had to salute after the
game. ("This was our fourth game in six nights and with the emotional
game with
Miami last night, I can't tell you how proud I am of the guys.") But as
good as the win is, it doesn't shake the pall cast from Friday's
discouraging home loss to the Heat, and no matter how they do on the
remainder of this tough stretch (even though by starting 3-1, they've
already done better than many might have predicted beforehand), the only
thing that's going to completely erase that bitterness is a win—or at
the very least, four good quarters of play—when they meet the Heat for a
third time on March 16th. Until then, it's still a great season, but
it's not one that anyone will mistake for being championship-bound.

Next up for the Ballers: Monday night at home against the Los Angeles
Lakers. A win over Kobe and co. will exorcise a couple demons, even if
it might not mean as much as it would have a couple years back when the
Lake Show was at the peak of its powers. All we can do now is play the
games on our schedule, keeping posting good results against good times,
and hope that the sting of the two tough Miami losses fuels the team to
an even more determined level of play. We'll see 'em again soon enough.

NHL Notes: Predators' P.K. Subban rides whirlwind to Stanley Cup Final

NHL Notes: Predators' P.K. Subban rides whirlwind to Stanley Cup Final

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It has been an extraordinary 11 months for P.K. Subban.

The defenseman moved from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference. Left his native Canada to live in the American South. Blended in with new teammates, created a new home and learned a new system of money, too.

Oh, and along the way the former star for the Montreal Canadiens played a key role in Nashville's stirring run to the Stanley Cup Final.

The best way to sum up Subban's approach? C'est la vie.

"I just tried to have the right attitude when change comes my way," Subban said. "I think when you have an open mind, an open mind is like a gold mine. You just have an open mind, you can only go up from there regardless of what comes your way and just always try to approach things in a positive way."

The Canadiens and Predators shocked the NHL last June 29 when Nashville swapped captain Shea Weber for Subban in a rare one-for-one trade of All-Star defensemen. Adding Subban's offensive skills immediately made the Predators a popular pick to be right where they are now as the Western Conference champions.

The stylish Subban has as much flair on the ice with his goal celebrations as off with his hats and stylish suits. The Predators and their fans have embraced all of it.

"When it happened, I came in here with the right attitude and just wanted to be a part of this team and do whatever I can do to help a team win," Subban said (see full story).

Penguins: Team rides maturity, resilience back to Cup Final
PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz stood shoulder to shoulder at center ice as midnight approached, crowd on its feet, Prince of Wales Trophy in hand. Another shot at the Stanley Cup in the offing.

On the surface, it could have been a scene ripped from 2008 when the longtime Pittsburgh Penguin teammates earned their first crack at a championship together, the one that was supposed to be the launching pad for a dynasty.

A closer look at the weary, grateful smiles told a different story.

This team has learned over the last decade that nothing can be taken for granted. Not their individual greatness or postseason success, even for one of the NHL's marquee franchises. Not the cohesion it takes to survive the crucible of the most draining championship chase in professional team sports or the mental toughness (along with a dash of luck) needed to stay on top once you get there.

So Crosby paused in the giddy aftermath of Pittsburgh's 3-2 victory over Ottawa in Game 7 of the helter-skelter Eastern Conference finals to do something the two-time Hart Trophy winner almost never does. He took stock of the moment, aware of how fleeting they can be.

"Every series you look at, the margin for error is so slim," Crosby said. "We've just continued to find ways and different guys have stepped up. We trust in that and we believe in that and whoever has come in the lineup has done a great job. That builds confidence. We've done it different ways, which is probably our biggest strength" (see full story).

NFL Notes: Vikings' Mike Zimmer says he'll coach with 1 eye if necessary

NFL Notes: Vikings' Mike Zimmer says he'll coach with 1 eye if necessary

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has had a lot of time on his hands this week while sitting at home on his Kentucky ranch as his team went through optional practices in the Twin Cities.

Zimmer was under strict orders to leave the team and rest his right eye, which has needed eight surgeries to try to repair a detached retina. The lingering issues have led some to wonder if he would be forced to shorten his career.

Zimmer has heard the speculation all week long. The hard-nosed coach said he has reached out to some of those doubters personally this week.

"I'll be back shortly," Zimmer vowed in a conference call with reporters on Friday. "One eye or two, it doesn't matter. I'll be back. We can put that retiring thing to bed quickly."

Zimmer missed one game last season due to the problems with his eye . He tried to work through the issues, but said on Friday that he was told to skip this week's practices and go home to allow his eye to recover.

"It's not much fun," he said. "Usually I love it down here in my place here. But I don't love it too much this week. It was kind of a forced situation. But for the long run it's the best thing for me."

Giants: Smith trying to resurrect career
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Geno Smith didn't catch a break in his final two seasons with the New York Jets, and it seems his chances of resurrecting his career with the Giants are facing obstacles.

Not only does Smith have to beat out incumbent Josh Johnson for the backup quarterback job to Eli Manning, his prospects of making the team took another hit in the NFL draft when the Giants selected Davis Webb with their third-round draft pick.

The 26-year-old Smith doesn't seem concerned.

Speaking after the Giants organized training activities Thursday, Smith sounded confident for a player who had a promising rookie season four years ago and then regressed, in large part due to inconsistency.

"Honestly, I don't feel like I have to prove anything to anyone other than myself," said Smith, who has played in only three games in the past two seasons, starting one. "I am just trying to be my best every single day, focusing on trying to be perfect. I know that is a far goal to try and reach, but just trying to be perfect every day and understanding what is required of me once I step onto the field, and then trying to get it done."

Redskins: Injured Moreau final draft pick to sign
ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins have signed the final member of their 10-player draft class, third-round pick Fabian Moreau.

The team announced the deal Friday.

The cornerback out of UCLA tore a pectoral muscle at his pro day in March. He was projected to be a first- or second-round pick before the injury and went 81st overall to the Redskins.

Moreau says doctors told him it was a five-month recovery, putting him on track to be ready by late in the preseason. The 23-year-old was at Washington's practice facility for rookie minicamp and the first sessions of organized team activities.

Coach Jay Gruden says the team is playing by ear the injury situations of Moreau and fourth-round pick Montae Nicholson and hopes they learn the schemes for the secondary as they rehab.

NFL: Judge tosses lawsuit over cheerleader wages
SAN FRANCISCO -- A lawsuit accusing the NFL and team owners of conspiring to suppress wages for cheerleaders lacks evidence to support that claim, a federal judge said.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup dismissed the lawsuit by a former San Francisco 49ers cheerleader. The suit sought class action status on behalf of all NFL cheerleaders.

"To state an antitrust claim here, plaintiff must plead not only `ultimate facts, such as conspiracy, and legal conclusions,'" Alsup said. "The complaint must answer the basic questions of `who, did what, to whom (or with whom), where, and when?'"

An email to an attorney for the 49ers cheerleader, Drexel Bradshaw, was not immediately returned. The cheerleader was only identified in the suit as "Kelsey K."

Alsup gave her an opportunity to amend the lawsuit and refile it by June 15.

The lawsuit was among a spate of legal actions in recent years accusing NFL teams of failing to pay cheerleaders for hours they spent practicing and making public appearances.