Sixers hang in second pre-season game, lose to Thunder despite hot shooting

Sixers hang in second pre-season game, lose to Thunder despite hot shooting

The Philadelphia 76ers can only hope that in three or four years they're anywhere close to where the Oklahoma City Thunder are as a team and a franchise, but as they say, on any given pre-season Tuesday night in Manchester (at a building called the Phones 4u Arena??). Anyway, the Sixers held tough against the Thunder in their second pre-season outing, weathering a torrential Kevin Durant downpour in the third quarter and getting it back close late, until bad free-throw shooting and some other stuff did them in. Final score: OKC 103, PHI 99.

Much different game than the Sixers' turnover-soaked pre-season debut--this time, the Sixers only intercepted the ball a mere nine times and gave it away a more manageable 20 times (still unthinkable by Doug Collins standards, but to hell with those). The headliner for this game instead was the team's surprisingly hot outside shooting, which was thought (for good reason) to be a huge liability for this Sixers squad going into the season.

Nearly everyone who sucks from three-point range (and yes, that's just about everyone you've heard of on this team) was lighting it up tonight. Michael Carter-Williams went 3-5 from deep. Tony Wroten went 4-8. Even Thaddeus Young, who made a grand total of one three-pointer each of the last two seasons, went 2-2 from behind the arc. It's good to know that these guys aren't totally incapable of throwing it in from 20-plus, though you'd have to be optimistic bordering on delusional to believe it's in any way sustainable.

In any event, a good effort from the Sixers against an obviously superior team--even with Russell Westbrook out and Durant sitting the fourth. I'll spare you guys the sonnets about each individual Sixer this time out, but a couple notes worth making:

Evan Turner gets the game ball again, his second very strong game in a row. 19 points on 7-16 shooting, seven boards and four dimes, with only one turnover this time. He looked in control for most of the game, making smart decisions in the half-court, converting on a couple tough layups, hitting jumpers he should be able to make, and kicking it out to open men when the situation called for it. Do kinda wish he had a floater in his arsenal--he was 0-2 by my count when he got some space in the lane and tried to push one over the second line of defense, with both misses looking a little awkward--but maybe he can be part of Michael Carter-Williams' study group for that when the time comes.

Best thing about ET's performance (again) was the free-throw shooting. Well, not the shooting, necessarily, since he missed five of his ten attempts, but hey, ten attempts!! That's 22 now over the course of two games. Evan went nearly all of March this year before racking up 22 FTAs. Two of them even came on a jumper where Turner raised as if to shoot, getting OKC defender Perry Jones III in the air--known in some parts of the world as a "pump fake"--and waited until he was coming back down to jump into Jones and draw the obvious whistle. It's the world's easiest way to earn two free throws, and I'm not sure I saw a single Sixer consciously do that in the entirety of last season.

Encouraging stuff, Evan. Might be just two pre-season games, but the pre-season has not exactly been Evan's time to shine in the past few years, so even him performing as solidly as a fourth-year player of his pedigree should be by now is a huge step in the right direction.

The final line for Spencer Hawes isn't terrible--11 points on 5-11 shooting, nine boards--but he was outclassed in just about every way by OKC's top two pivots, 20-year-old rookie Steven Adams and vet Nick Collison. Six years into his pro career, the remaining lack of fundamentals in Spence's game is really pretty frustrating. He doesn't box out, he doesn't get a hand up on shooters, he's slow to rotate over on help defense, and he's forever trying to thread passes into open spaces on the post that simply don't exist. This will undoubtedly be a recurring complaint throughout the season, so I probably shouldn't waste too much of my breath here, but when you make Steven Adams look like Dwight Howard, you probably deserve at least a little bitching.

He did make a nice sweeping hook shot across the line in the third quarter, though. Good job on that one Spence.

The most interesting Sixer on the night was probably Tony Wroten, who looks to be the natural successor to Lou Williams in terms of open-court and playmaking talent and just absolutely mortifying decision-making. At one point after hitting four threes, Wroten jacked a step-back 28-footer--a contested one, no less--which even calling a "heat check" would be giving too much credit. He also hoisted an easily-blocked three in transition at the end of the first half (even though there were five seconds left on the clock) and squandered a three-on-two opportunity by going full-throttle into both defenders.

Wroten's excellence in pushing the ball on the break and playing physically near the basket are obvious, and his line on the night was quite good--a team-high 20 points on 5-13 shooting (6-6 from the line), four rebounds and three assists. But giving him any amount of control with this team does worry me a little, since not only is his ability to make snap judgments on the court highly suspect, but there seems to be a little selfishness and immaturity to his game that could disrupt what seems to be an otherwise fairly good ball-sharing team. Minor concerns on a young lottery team, and it's great (and far more important) to see that the potential is there with T-Wrote, but I don't think he should be pushing MCW (who had another solid game today) for the starting PG role anytime soon, certainly.

And holy hell, a couple words about Kevin Durant, who nearly racked a triple-double while barely breaking a sweat in 33 minutes of game action--21 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. He seemed to be taking it easy for the first quarter, but he had a couple shots in the third quarter that forced the Sixers to start doubling, and then it was just over--KD's getting LeBron-like in his whip-passing out of the double team, finding the open man for an uncontested three or drive to the basket. He's really getting to that level where double-teaming him is even more dangerous than leaving Evan Turner against him in isolation, and the entire Western Conference should be petrified by this development.

Sixers come back to the States now for a Friday game against the Celtics at their D-League affiliate 87ers' new stadium in lovely Newark, Delaware. No idea yet how good this team is going to be this year within the gamut of regularly bad to historically bad, but I expect I will enjoy watching them. #TeamWHOP

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

MONTREAL -- Eric Fehr and Jake Guentzel scored in the second period to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins past the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Wednesday night.

Defensemen Ian Cole and Olli Maatta also scored for Pittsburgh, which won its second game in a row after a three-game skid.

Sven Andrighetto scored for Montreal, which lost its second straight and has only two wins in its last six games. The Canadiens' offense remained in a rut coming off a 1-0 loss Monday in Detroit.

Penguins goalie Matt Murray was back in form after Monday's wild 8-7 win over Washington, making 19 saves. But Carey Price's woes continued as Pittsburgh outshot Montreal 26-20. Price allowed three or more goals for the eighth time in 10 games (see full recap).

Red Wings' Vanek, Nielsen score in 6-5 SO win over Bruins
DETROIT -- Thomas Vanek and Frans Nielsen scored in a shootout, lifting the Detroit Red Wings to a comeback 6-5 win over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night.

The Red Wings rallied from 3-0 and 4-1 deficits in the first period, and with 3:04 remaining in regulation, Gustav Nyquist scored to pull them into a tie.

In the shootout, Tuukka Rask and Petr Mrazek stopped the first shots they faced before Vanek scored for the Red Wings and Brad Marchand countered with a goal for the Bruins. Nielsen, who like Vanek joined the team last summer as a free agent, scored on the team's third attempt and Vatrano missed the net with a chance to extend the 1-on-1 duels.

The Bruins were dominant early before blowing a chance to keep Detroit at a distance in the Atlantic Division standings (see full recap).

Burns, Pavelski lead Sharks past rival LA Kings, 3-2
LOS ANGELES -- Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels scored in the San Jose Sharks' seventh win at Staples Center in their last eight trips, 3-2 over the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night.

Joe Thornton had two assists and Martin Jones made 22 saves for the defending Western Conference champion Sharks, who wrapped up their regular-season series against their biggest rivals with three victories in five games.

After Burns scored his 19th goal in the opening minutes, San Jose hung on through a scoreless third period to continue its recent domination in downtown Los Angeles, including three victories in last season's first-round playoff series.

Tanner Pearson and Marian Gaborik scored for the Kings, who ended a seven-game homestand with four defeats (see full recap).

McDavid scores in overtime to lead Oilers past Panthers 4-3
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Connor McDavid scored the winning goal in overtime as the Edmonton Oilers won their fourth game in a row, 4-3 over the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night.

McDavid, who also had two assists in the game, got a breakaway late in overtime and got the puck away with 2.6 seconds left. Florida's James Reimer made the glove save, but the puck was ruled to be across the line via video review.

Zack Kassian, Mark Letestu and Jordan Eberle also scored for the Oilers, who have their longest winning streak since December 2015.

Vincent Trocheck, Michael Sgarbossa and Greg McKegg had goals for the Panthers, who have lost two straight (see full recap).

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity (see story). Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."