Sixers Impress in Encouraging Though Largely Meaningless Preseason Win

Sixers Impress in Encouraging Though Largely Meaningless Preseason Win

No Andrew Bynum, no problem—we got Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes manning the middle, we got all we need. Okay, even John Mitchell probably wouldn't try to make that argument, but the Sixers put together an excellent pre-season performance against the Boston Celtics tonight (the first televised game of the pre-season) without their eventual starting center, with Allen and Hawes combining for 28 points on 11-16 shooting. The Sixers found separation in the third quarter and secured the win (and some free Big Macs, natch) by a comfortable 107-75 margin.
Of course, the usual caveats stand. Boston, a team that can barely even be bothered to show up to the regular season anymore, weren't exactly playing like it was Game Seven of the conference semis—KG sat, Rajon Rondo sleepwalked through the game, and Paul Pierce only seemed to care about hitting shots when there was a good chance of it pissing Evan Turner off. So all Philly mini-victories tonight must be taken with the necessary grain of salt.
All that said, there were some pretty encouraging moments to be had. Some notes:
- The Spence tonight certainly looks like the one we saw through the first few weeks of the '10-'11 season, with the Big GOPper scoring around the basket, hitting his outside jumper on the pick-and-pop, crashing the boards hard and making smart interior passes. Certainly not to say that we'll see a repeat performance by that Spence at the commencement of '12-'13, but good to know that guy is still in there somewhere. And holy shit, that hair! A mullet so glorious it's instantly impossible to picture Hawes without it—probably the second-best thing to happen to the Sixers this off-season.
- There was a lot of talk in the off-season that Nick Young was signed as a replacement for the ultimately departed Lou Williams, but it's clear to me that if there's a Lou.0 on this Sixers squad, it's Maalik Wayns. Pushing the ball with reckless abandon, taking ill-advised shots on the move, getting Malik and Zumoff inappropriately excited...it's like the Sweetness never left. Inconclusive thusfar on whether or not he'll eventually drive me as nuts as Lou did—the fact that he had eight assists tonight hopefully suggests he's a better distributor, at least—though if Coach Collins eventually ends up giving him the ball in late-game situations, I have a pretty good guess about that.
- Speaking of Swaggy P—who is this efficient, distributing Nick Young and where the hell is the remorseless gunner we were promised? My jaw was agape at some of the passes Young made tonight—not just because they were good (though most of them were), but because he was even attempting to make them. Young's lack of passing game has been a running joke among NBA statheads for virtually his entire career—Young averaged less than an assist a game last year, which as a guard getting big minutes is virtually impossible to do—but he was playing some seriously smart ball tonight, ending with 14 points on 5-7 shooting with two dimes (more if the bigs were able to handle some of his solid interior passes) and zero turnovers. The preseason offers no guarantees, of course, but this is really a sight to behold from our new two-guard.
- Young wasn't the only one doing some nifty passing tonight—an impressive eight players ended with multiple dimes, for 32 total assists on 43 total field goals, with special kudos going to Dorrell Wright for a couple ultra-pretty handoffs inside. Unselfish, high-IQ passing was such an important part of this team's success last year, and it's good to see signs that even with so many new roster pieces and the loss of a ball-handler of Andre Iguodala's capabilities, that might still be a hallmark of the '12-'13 season.   - I still love Evan Turner unconditionally and totally lack the ability to assess his play with any degree of objectivity.
Above all, it was great to see the guys in action on their home floor again, adorned this year with the 50th Anniversary insignia (which at first glance looked like a Dairy Queen "DQ" logo to me, but still), to say hello to the new guys and what's up to the old guys. Just over two weeks until the regular season tips off, and though there's no way to predict what the season's start will be like until we know for sure whether or not Bynum will be in playing condition, it's fun to have the Liberty Ballers back in our lives. Cleveland up next on Wednesday, than to the Barclays Center for a second game against the Nets on Friday. Let's go Sixers. 

With a new mentality, Vince Velasquez takes nice step in right direction

With a new mentality, Vince Velasquez takes nice step in right direction

Vince Velasquez needed 94 pitches to complete five innings in yet another short outing Thursday ... but still, it was a nice step in the right direction.

Velasquez minimized the damage against a stacked Rockies lineup, allowing one run over five innings with seven strikeouts in a 2-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay). He avoided having that one big, meltdown inning. His pitch count still soared because the Rockies fouled off 28 pitches, but it was a promising sign that the longest at-bat of the day — 11 pitches to Charlie Blackmon — ended in a strikeout.

"Today was just huge on my part, even giving up the home run (to Trevor Story), just shutting down the majority of the guys," Velasquez said. "I gave up seven hits, but limiting the damage and getting out of the innings. These guys are just attacking.... I had a plan to attack the guys. You know, prior starts, changing game plans causes damage. So keep planning to attack and work your way around that.

"They're fouling off fastballs, it means they're late on them. I'm not changing my mentality. Why throw a curveball?"

Velasquez met with pitching coach Bob McClure last Sunday after his latest poor start Saturday in Pittsburgh. The key advice he was given was "stick to your strengths." Anybody who's watched Velasquez the last two seasons knows what his strength is: his fastball.

"Definitely. That's my go-to," Velasquez said. "[Before], I was just pretty much having second thoughts about certain pitches and again, just changing my game plan. If you shy away from that, things pretty much go away from you. That's where you get hurt. Today's mentality didn't change at all. I attacked guys with high fastballs in 0-2 counts. Story put a good swing on it and it ended up escalating out."

That was the one big mistake Velasquez made. He threw an 0-2 fastball right down the middle that Story hit out of the park. The Phillies have allowed the most 0-2 home runs in the majors this season (six) and the last two seasons combined (17). For reference, the Marlins have allowed the fewest over that span, just two.

But still, the high fastballs for Velasquez mostly worked on this afternoon. He induced 10 swinging strikes on 72 fastballs.

His off-speed stuff was a different story. The Rockies' first two hits of the day came on curveballs and they went 4 for 6 against his curve, slider and changeup. Colorado's hitters swung through just 2 of the 22 offspeed pitches they saw from Velasquez.

Manager Pete Mackanin said after Velasquez's last start that commanding his off-speed pitches is the key for him. His fastball is great, we all know that, but it just doesn't play multiple times through the order when the other team knows that pitch is coming in every key situation.

"The changeup was actually working a little bit [today]," Velasquez said. "It was down. That's just another pitch I need to work on a little bit more. But it's coming around. The curveball has a good shape to it but, again, it's just locating it."

It's important to keep it all in perspective when it comes to Velasquez. He's a power-armed 24-year-old who's still figuring things out. Most pitchers wouldn't be doing their jobs by going five innings, but with Velasquez it's a baby-steps approach — every small step in a positive direction being a sign that his dominant stuff can someday translate into consistency. 

He'll carry a 2-4 record and 5.55 ERA into his next start Tuesday in Miami. 

After epically bad game, Odubel Herrera maintains he's 'making good swings'

After epically bad game, Odubel Herrera maintains he's 'making good swings'

Don't be shocked if Pete Mackanin gives Odubel Herrera the Maikel Franco treatment this weekend after Herrera's epically bad game Thursday afternoon.

Herrera, batting third for the first time since May 9, went 0 for 5 with five strikeouts in the Phillies' 2-1, extra-inning win over the Rockies (see Instant Replay).

He's the first player in the majors this season to go 0 for 5 with five Ks and the first Phillie to do so since Pat Burrell in September 2008.

(And no, that doesn't mean the Phillies are winning the World Series this season.)

Herrera is in a very bad place right now. He's hitting .226 with a .275 on-base percentage, and he has 28 strikeouts with one walk in May.

But you wouldn't know it from talking to him after the game Thursday. Herrera wasn't downtrodden or beside himself. He was typical Odubel, flashing a few smiles and remaining positive.

"I feel that I am making good swings but I'm just missing the pitches," Herrera said. "But I feel I am swinging the bat well. 

"I don't really know what it is exactly. But I am seeing the ball well. I don't know if it's when I charge at the ball or the timing of my swing. It's definitely at that point. Maybe it has something to do with the balance of the bat and my body. 

"Besides being positive, I have to check the video to see what I'm doing wrong and make some adjustment. But I'm staying positive, for sure."

Herrera and Franco, batting third and fourth, went 1 for 10 with seven strikeouts Thursday. They're both hitting below .230. They're supposed to be cornerstone pieces for the Phillies, so it's extremely troubling. Even if the Phillies were winning games recently it would be troubling.

Mackanin was elusive when asked if he'd consider benching Herrera Friday. But there's no real reason to believe it would do any good anyway. There's a fine line between giving a player time to clear his head and preventing him from having chances to bounce back.

"You know what, let me enjoy this. We'll discuss that tomorrow. Let me smile for a while," Mackanin said. 

"It's a tough decision. That's a tough decision. You wonder if he needs to be in there seeing pitches and batting or does he need time off? I'll think about that."

Herrera did say that he and Franco have leaned on each other during this rough period. They talk and try to motivate each other every day, but right now the results aren't there. Both are swinging wildly at too many pitches out of the strike zone and just making it too easy for opposing pitchers. When that's coming from the middle of your order, you're going to have problems scoring runs. 

On this date a year ago, Herrera was hitting .327 with a .901 OPS. Franco was hitting .260 with a .748 OPS.

Some of the struggles are because of pitchers adjusting to Herrera and Franco as the book on them expands. 

When asked if that's the case for his two young players, Mackanin referenced the Phillies' own adjustment to Rockies slugger Charlie Blackmon.

"I was pretty happy we got to Blackmon, that guy is a heckuva hitter and we pitched him really well today. There's an example of what you're talking about," Mackanin said. "Little by little, we're going to get there. We're going to start playing better."

Like Herrera and Franco, Mackanin has no choice but to think positive and hope for the best. It's a long summer, after all.