Slow and Painful: The 10-11 Flyers Story?

Slow and Painful: The 10-11 Flyers Story?

Think, if you can, back to February 24. The Sixers were rising in the standings, and the Phillies were soaking up the sun in Clearwater, but the Flyers were the toast of the town. Andrej Meszaros had just lifted the orange and black past the Islanders in overtime, and with three quarters of the season completed, the club held a nine point lead in the Eastern Conference.

Might as well have been a whole other team. From that point on, the Flyers have been falling like a meteor, and it's oh-so-close to impact.

They finished the regular season 7-8-6, losing their top playoff seeding in the process, and very nearly the Atlantic Division too. "Don't panic, they'll turn it on," many of us argued, perhaps trying to convince ourselves. And they did... sort of. Let's face it, even though they overwhelmed the Buffalo Sabres for long stretches at a time, the Flyers barely escaped Round 1 with a 4-3 series win. "They dominated the final three games though. They're ready now."

Only they weren't ready, and now we have to act all shocked and what not because their season could be coming to an end tonight.

It's one of the worst feelings you can have watching sports. This isn't a case where the Flyers are just plain overmatched, at least not on paper. Nor did they simply run into a hot goalie, which is not to say Tim Thomas has been anything other than just that, but he's not stealing this series right now. The Flyers aren't lucky to be here, haven't been completely ravaged by injuries, and aren't on the wrong end of a bunch of bad bounces or poor officiating.

They are, and have been, collapsing before our eyes. Worse, nobody can really explain why. It's Chris Pronger's injury. It's the Kris Versteeg trade. It's the lack of a true number one goaltender. It's because this team has no heart. It's everything. It's nothing.

I don't know what's going to happen tonight. My fear is the Flyers are headed for sweep-land. Games 1 and 3 were absolutely brutal, and if it weren't for two quick goals in Game 2, maybe that wouldn't have been any different either. As it is, that's the only time I can remember being excited during this series, the 10 minutes or so that they actually held a lead through those first 180.

Even if they win tonight, then the question becomes whether it merely prolongs the inevitable. Everybody remembers what happened last year, including the Bruins. Does anyone honestly believe it can happen again? Not just based on the historical nature of such an accomplishment, but going solely on the way they've played in this series.

I'll come out and say it--if you believe that, you're stronger than I am. Me, I can't stop thinking about the slow, painful way the Flyers appear to be closing out this season.

Still, here's hoping they don't let the Bruins finish them quick and easy.

Jahlil Okafor's Duke network helping him through up-and-down season

Jahlil Okafor's Duke network helping him through up-and-down season

Jahlil Okafor’s second season in the NBA has been one of learning, marked by injuries, trade talks and DNPs. Throughout these shifting uncertainties, he had a constant foundation: his fellow Duke players.

“It’s a brotherhood,” Okafor said. “We’re all friends, we’re all a family.”

From those who burst onto the scene to those who struggled to veterans who have seen it all, Okafor has a network of players who already have been through the ups and downs of the league. Even though Okafor competed for only one year at the college level, he got to know many of them while he was coming up the ranks in high school. He formed a stronger bond once he got to the pros.

“He always knows I’m one phone call away no matter what,” Kyrie Irving said. 

Okafor began his second year dealing with a knee injury that held him out most of preseason action. When he got back into the mix, the Sixers looked to determine his place in a logjammed frontcourt.

Minutes were more available at the five-spot when Nerlens Noel was sidelined for the first 23 games of the season. Once all four centers (including Richaun Holmes) were healthy, it was Noel who found himself the odd man out of the rotation. Then the Sixers tried experimenting with a “twin towers” starting lineup of Embiid and Okafor. That pairing didn’t pan out and roles changed.

The Sixers narrowed their roster to a 10-man rotation with Noel as the defensive leader in the second unit. Okafor, for the most part, got the start when Embiid did not play because of back-to-backs or injuries, and was a DNP otherwise.

That situation changed again when the Sixers sat Okafor recently for two games as he was involved in trade discussions. Okafor did not travel with the Sixers for their Feb. 13 contest in Charlotte and rejoined them in Boston for their Feb. 15 game when a deal did not transpire. 

Okafor has a long list of players he can ask about these trying scenarios.

“I get help from all those guys,” Okafor said. “I can look to any one of [them] for advice.”

Former Blue Devil Austin Rivers has been in Okafor’s situation when it comes to decreased playing time. The 2012 10th overall pick had troubles carving out a role early on with the Pelicans. He dealt with injuries and was hit with DNPs when the team added more guards to the mix. Now in his fifth season, he has established a spot on the Clippers. 

“It’s a good thing,” Rivers said of the challenges. “If you’re truly a good player and a competitor, it’ll breed maturity and a level of respect and hard work. It’s a humbling experience. It’s the best thing for you; it’s the best thing that happened to me. I went through struggles to come back a better player and person. I think it’s the same thing he’s doing now. He’ll appreciate it.”

Irving, formerly the first overall pick, didn’t struggle with his role with the Cavaliers. He was a focal point from the start and had become a three-time All-Star and NBA champion by the end of his fifth season. Because of this, Okafor looks to Irving for his knowledge of managing the spotlight.

“Guys have to go through what they go through just to build character, build whatever they need, that armor, to deal with what this NBA life entails. It comes with a lot,” Irving said. “It’s just patience. Despite what's going on in the outside world, you’ve got to remain calm and give everything you have to this game of basketball.”

Last season, Okafor established a mentor relationship with Elton Brand when the 17-year veteran signed with the Sixers in January of Okafor’s rookie year. Okafor still speaks with Brand, who became a player development consultant for the Sixers, on a weekly basis for guidance.

This season, he has another veteran Duke player in the locker room. Gerald Henderson got to know Okafor before they played together on the Sixers. Henderson was on campus completing his degree when Okafor was there ahead of his freshman season. The two spent time together then, and Henderson continues to look out for him now as a teammate.

“I was around him a lot, working out with the team, seeing how good of a kid he was,” Henderson said, also adding, “It’s a man’s league. It’s not like you’ve got to hold somebody’s hand through something. Jah’s a man in himself. But at the same time, I’m always checking on him, seeing how he’s doing, make sure he’s not down, make sure he’s still getting his work in and focusing on the right things.”

The trade deadline is two days away.

Whether Okafor remains in a Sixers jersey or puts on a new uniform, the one he wore in college always will be a part of his journey through the NBA.

“It’s bigger than basketball,” Okafor said. 

Phillies Notes: Hector Neris looks to become three-pitch guy in 2017

Phillies Notes: Hector Neris looks to become three-pitch guy in 2017

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Hector Neris racked up 102 strikeouts, the second-most ever by a Phillies reliever, during his breakout 2016 season.

The right-hander did it basically with a two-pitch mix — a power fastball and a darting splitter that manager Pete Mackanin likes to call “an invisible pitch.”

After last season, Neris reflected on his success, which included a 2.58 ERA over 80⅓ innings, the third-most among NL relievers.

Neris determined that he would need to diversify his pitch repertoire if he’s going to continue to have success.

So during winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, he dusted off his seldom-used slider and threw it more. He’s polishing it up in this camp and plans to use it in the upcoming World Baseball Classic and during the regular season.

“I think it’s something that can make me better,” Neris said. “I’ve never had the confidence in it that I had in my other pitches, but I’m working hard on it. It will give me a third option for the hitter to think about.”

Neris threw a slider 2.9 percent of the time in 2016, according to MLB Statcast. He threw more than 49 percent splitters and 46 percent fastballs.

“In the big leagues you have to respect the hitter,” Neris said. “The hitters know me now and they know I throw fastballs and splitters. I need to have that third pitch for them to respect. When I throw it, I want them to say, ‘What is that?’”

Neris’ splitter darts down and in to a right-hander hitter. The slider will break the other way.

Neris has talked about different grips on the pitch with guest spring-training instructor Larry Andersen, who threw a million sliders in his career.

“He threw some nasty ones today,” Andersen said after Tuesday’s workout. “The pitch will help him.”

McLaren to WBC
Bullpen coach John McLaren will leave camp on Wednesday and travel to Japan as Team China assembles for the World Baseball Classic. McLaren will manage that club. He also skippered the club in 2013.

Asked if he spoke more than seven words of Chinese, McLaren quipped, “That would be pushing it. I’m still trying to conquer English.”

Team China will provide a translator for McLaren, though there is a universal element to baseball communication.

“This is my third time going to the WBC,” McLaren said. “I love it.”

Almost game time
The Phillies will play their annual exhibition game against the University of Tampa on Thursday. The Phils are expected to play many of the young players that will make up their Triple A Lehigh Valley roster. Right-hander Mark Leiter Jr., who pitched at Double A Reading last season, will come over from minor-league camp to make the start. Pitching coach Bob McClure said he expected to get several projected big-league relievers work in the game.

Alec Asher will start the Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees on Friday in Tampa and Adam Morgan will start Saturday’s games against the Yankees in Clearwater.