Sixers stay undefeated in 2014, clinch not having worst record of all-time with 10th W

Sixers stay undefeated in 2014, clinch not having worst record of all-time with 10th W

Once upon a time, there were knowledgeable basketball folk who predicted the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers would present a legitimate challenge to the Sixer team of four decades earlier and their record for all-time futility in an 82-win season, when the squad went 9-73 back in '73. As one of his Bold Predictions for the '13-'14 season, Grantland's Zach Lowe went out on a limb to predict that the Sixers would in fact reach double-digit Ws this year, and even then he seemed to do so with great trepidation. It didn't seem like it was totally off the table, at least.

The team's unexpected 3-0 start quashed a lot of that talk, but when the team went on to lose 19 of their next 23, it seemed the Sixers might at least cut it a little closer than we'd be comfortable with. However, we can now officially put that idea to bed, as the Sixers closed out the Denver Nuggets on the road last night for their second win in a row and tenth win on the season, officially eliminating them from contention of matching the '72-'73 bunch's crappiness. (Pop those Natty Light cans, Fred Carter and Kevin Loughery.)

The Denver win is notable for a couple other reasons as well. For one, it's the first time the team's won back-to-back games since that previously mentioned 3-0 start, nearly going two whole months without getting consecutive wins. It's also just their third road victory of the season, with the second coming just one game earlier in Los Angeles. (Math majors may also be able to connect the dots and conclude that this is also the team's first time all season of winning two straight on the road.)

And it was a damn impressive win, too. A lot of it was probably the luck of catching the Nuggets at the exact right time, with Denver reeling from a season-high seven-game losing streak and quickly dropping dangerously underwater in the stacked Western Conference, but it was still one of the best team-wide performances we've seen from the boys all season. Seven players scored in double figures, four registered at least three assists, and everyone rebounded, with all eight players who played at least ten minutes grabbing at least four boards on the night.

More encouraging was the defense. It wasn't exactly an '08 Celtics-type performance, as the Nuggets still scored in triple digits, though a lot of that was inflated by the game's occasional breakneck pace, as well as the refs' impossibly tight calling of the game in terms of fouls. But the Sixers did a much better job rotating and closing out on shooters--the Nuggets went just 5-25 from deep, which was partly due to their own sustained shooting struggles, but also largely because the Sixers weren't giving up open looks on 20 of those 25 attempts. They scrambled, they helped, they occasionally broke down but didn't stop trying. It's some long-overdue but very necessary improvement for the Sixers if they want to take a step back to respectability.

Of course, any such steps the Sixers take comes with an accompanying dread that they'll get too competent and end up winning themselves out of the high lottery. Fair, though Sixer fans can at least take solace in the knowledge that they're far from the only tankers on a recent run of competent ball--Milwaukee has won two of their last five after starting the season 5-21, Utah has actually gone 4-3 in their last seven to reach double-digit wins themselves, and Sacramento has also hit its stride post-Rudy Gay trade, winning three of their last five (including Ws over the contending Heat and Rockets). The Sixers will actually head to Sactown tomorrow night to see which of the two teams have dug themselves further out of their early-season rut, and my money is on the Kings emerging victorious.

In any event, it is good to see that Michael Carter-Williams--who struggled a bit from the field tonight, going 5-15, but got to the line eight times and still managed a triple-double-flirting final line of 15 points, nine boards and six assists--really does have a huge impact on this team's ability to win games, as the Sixers are now 9-11 with MCW in the starting lineup and just 1-10 with him out of it. As the Sixers' one clear bedrock player for the future already on their active roster, it's pretty nice to see him have such a profound effect on the team's fortunes, and we can only hope he gets more impactful from here. (Don't be surprised if the Sixers start sitting him random games with earaches, sore throats and other bogus-seeming ailments just to ensure his impact on the Ballers isn't too considerable just yet.

In any event, the Sixers are officially fun as hell to watch again. Happy New Year to them and to us, and may all our Evan Turners come true in 2014.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Just pitch.
 
Don’t worry about the role.
 
Just pitch.
 
That’s Adam Morgan’s mindset this spring.
 
“I’m just trying to show whoever needs to see it that I can be an asset to this team,” the left-hander said after his spring debut against the New York Yankees on Saturday (see story). “I’m just keeping it simple that way. I’m not trying to go out for that fifth (starting) spot. If the fifth spot opens up, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want to put me in the bullpen, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want me to be the backup catcher, I’ll be the backup catcher.”
 
The Phillies have plenty of candidates for backup catcher.
 
And the top five spots in their starting rotation, barring an unforeseen development, are accounted for.
 
But there is a way for Morgan to make this team.
 
“He’s definitely a bullpen candidate,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
Mackanin is on record as saying he’d like to have two lefties in what likely will be a seven-man bullpen. It might not work out that way, but that would be Mackanin’s preference.
 
Morgan is one of what appears to be four candidates along with Joely Rodriguez, Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett. Ramos and Burnett are experienced major-league veterans in camp on minor-league contracts. Rodriguez is the only pure lefty reliever on the 40-man roster. Morgan, of course, is on the 40-man roster, but he’s mainly been a starter in his career.

There’s a long way to go in spring training and it would not be surprising to see general manager Matt Klentak add to the list of lefty relief candidates with some type of pickup before the end of camp.
 
But for now, it’s just these four.
 
Morgan, who turns 27 on Monday, started and pitched two scoreless innings against the Yankees on Saturday and will likely continue to have his innings stretched out throughout the Grapefruit League season, just in case he’s needed as a starter.

Ramos and Rodriguez both pitched an inning Saturday. Ramos allowed a hit and a run. Rodriguez had a clean inning. Burnett was tagged for two hits and two runs on Friday.
 
Morgan made 21 starts for the Phillies last season. He also made two relief appearances and finished the season with a 6.04 ERA. He was sent to Triple A in July and returned in mid-August. He made nine starts after returning and pitched at least six innings and gave up two or fewer earned runs in four of them.
 
During his time in Triple A, Morgan started throwing a two-seam fastball or sinker. He’s continued to throw it this spring and believes it will help him.
 
“I learned to trust the two-seamer last year and that’s what I hope to keep moving forward with,” he said.
 
Will it take him to the Phillies’ bullpen?
 
He hopes so. He got a taste of relieving last season and liked it.
 
“Oh, yeah, I loved it,” he said. “Every time the phone rang down there, I was on high alert. It was awesome. It’s a rush.
 
“But wherever I land, I land. I’d be willing to play anywhere on this team.”

Instant Replay: Villanova topples Creighton, clinches Big East title outright

Instant Replay: Villanova topples Creighton, clinches Big East title outright

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Sophomore transfer Eric Paschall scored a team-high 19 points -- including five dunks -- and Kris Jenkins added 15, as No. 2 Villanova pulled away late to beat No. 23 Creighton, 79-63, and clinch the 2017 Big East Conference regular-season title outright.

Paschall, starting during Darryll Reynolds’ injury absence, shot 8 for 12 from the field and added six rebounds.

Creighton’s last lead was 45-43 six minutes into the second half, but a Paschall slam and Jenkins’ first three after five misses sparked a 16-4 run that gave the Wildcats a 59-49 lead with 8½ minutes left. Creighton got no closer than seven the rest of the way.

Paschall’s career high is a 31-point game for Fordham against NYIT on Nov. 14, 2014.

Villanova again struggled from three-point range but had tremendous success attacking the basket, especially in the second half of the final game at the Pavilion for two years.

The Wildcats shot just 17 percent from three (3 for 18) but 69 percent from two (24 for 35) and repeatedly got to the foul line in the second half, when they were 14 for 18.

Jenkins again struggled from three (1 for 7) yet still finished with 15 points to go with four rebounds and three assists.

Josh Hart shot 7 for 11 for 16 points and added seven rebounds and three assists.

Villanova opened a streaky first half by taking a 7-0 lead, but Creighton hit four straight threes in less than two minutes and led by three. Villanova then went on a 17-2 run and led by as many as 10 points before Creighton finished the half on a 13-3 run to tie the game at 33.

There were seven lead changes in the first seven minutes of the second half, but Villanova finally pulled away and outscored Creighton 36-18 over the last 14 minutes.

Mikal Bridges added 11 points and eight rebounds for Villanova, while Jalen Brunson had nine points and three assists.

Freshman Dante DiVincenzo came off the bench to contribute nine points and four rebounds for Villanova.

What it means
Villanova improved to 27-3 overall and 14-3 in the Big East, clinching the conference title outright. Entering play Saturday, only Villanova or Butler was in position to win the conference title, with Villanova holding a magic number of one.

Villanova, which lost to Butler on Wednesday, has now won 12 straight games immediately following losses (15 if you carry over to the next year).

The Wildcats last lost consecutive games at the end of the 2012-2013 season, when they fell to Louisville in the Big East quarterfinals and to North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Creighton fell to 22-7 overall and 9-7 in the Big East. The Bluejays are 4-6 since an 18-1 start.

Stat of the day
Marcus Foster had 25 points and eight assists, becoming the first player with 25 points and five assists against Villanova since Ben Hansbrough of Notre Dame, who had 30 points and 10 rebounds (and five steals) in a 93-72 win over Villanova on Feb. 28, 2011, at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Indiana.

Turning point 
Villanova led by one at 48-47 when Jenkins finally buried a three for a four-point lead.

Moving out
This was Villanova’s last game at the Pavilion for about 20 months. Villanova will play most of its home games at the Wells Fargo Center next year while renovations are made to the Pavilion.

Villanova is 293-62 all-time at the Pavilion, which opened in 1985. That includes a 131-12 mark since the start of the 2004-2005 season.

By the numbers
Khyri Thomas scored 17 points for the Bluejays … Creighton was 7 for 14 from three in the first half but 4 for 13 in the second half … Villanova has won six straight against Creighton since a 101-80 loss in February 2014 when Doug McDermott scored 39 … Reynolds, Villanova’s second-leading rebounder at 5.5 per game, sat out a fifth straight game with a rib injury.  

What's next
Villanova has a week off before facing Georgetown at the Verizon Center in Washington at noon Saturday. Georgetown is 14-15 overall and 5-11 in the Big East.