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.

Best of MLB: Stephen Strasburg wins 14th as Nationals down Indians

Best of MLB: Stephen Strasburg wins 14th as Nationals down Indians

CLEVELAND -- Stephen Strasburg shut down Cleveland for seven innings and bounced back from his only loss this season, leading the Washington Nationals to a 4-1 win over the Indians on Wednesday.

Strasburg (14-1) began the season with 13 straight wins before he was beaten by the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 21. The powerful right-hander shook off that blemish, holding the Indians to only three hits as the Nationals recovered after blowing a two-run lead in the ninth and losing on Tuesday night.

Washington rookie Trea Turner drove in three runs and Daniel Murphy hit his 20th homer off Carlos Carrasco (7-4), who nearly matched Strasburg but was done in by one bad inning.

Nationals reliever Blake Treinen stopped Cleveland's threat in the ninth, getting a game-ending double play for his major league save.

Strasburg walked one and struck out seven (see full recap)

Cardinals snap Familia's saves streak, rally past Mets 5-4
NEW YORK -- Yadier Molina and pinch-hitter Kolten Wong each stroked an RBI double in the ninth inning, and the St. Louis Cardinals ended Jeurys Familia's streak of 52 straight saves in rallying past the New York Mets 5-4 on Wednesday night.

Yoenis Cespedes hit a go-ahead homer off Adam Wainwright to cap a three-run comeback in the seventh that gave the Mets a 4-3 lead. But then Familia, who hadn't blown a regular-season save opportunity since July 30 last year, finally faltered.

Jedd Gyorko drew a one-out walk in the ninth and was replaced by pinch-runner Randal Grichuk. Molina hit the next pitch to deep center field, and Grichuk scored standing up to tie it.

Molina was thrown out at third by Familia (2-2) on pinch-hitter Jeremy Hazelbaker's comebacker, but Hazelbaker stole second and scored when Wong lined a double just inside the left-field line.

Familia's franchise-record saves streak was the third-longest in major league history behind Tom Gordon (54) and Eric Gagne (84).

Jonathan Broxton (3-2) tossed a scoreless eighth and Seung Hwan Oh got three quick outs for his sixth save (see full recap)

Padres hit 3 HRs to extend streak, beat Blue Jays 8-4
TORONTO -- Adam Rosales hit a two-run home run, Alex Dickerson and Brett Wallace each hit solo shots and the San Diego Padres beat the Toronto Blue Jays 8-4 on Wednesday, avoiding a three-game sweep.

San Diego extended its club-record streak of games with at least one home run to 25. It's the longest run since the 2002 Texas Rangers set a major league record by homering in 27 straight.

Luis Perdomo (5-4) allowed four runs and six hits in 5 2-3 innings to win back-to-back starts.

Wallace reached base three times. He was hit by a pitch and scored on Rosales' homer in the third, connected off R.A. Dickey in the fifth and hit an RBI single off Joe Biagini in the sixth.

Dickerson homered for the fourth time in four games when he connected off Franklin Morales in the eighth. He is first Padres rookie to homer in four straight games.

Dickey (7-12) allowed seven runs, six earned, and four hits in 5 2-3 innings. The knuckleballer is winless in three starts and has allowed six home runs in that span (see full recap).

Eric Rowe explains 'hiccups,' ready for fresh start in pads

Eric Rowe explains 'hiccups,' ready for fresh start in pads

Earlier this week, Doug Pederson admitted cornerback Eric Rowe had some “hiccups” during the spring, and seemed to indicate they stemmed from learning a new defense. 

Rowe says that wasn’t the problem at all.

“It wasn’t the new defense that was giving me whatever hiccups [Pederson] was talking about,” Rowe said on Wednesday as he reported for his second training camp (see Day 3 observations). “It was just, I was having trouble breaking on top of the routes, specifically the curl routes. But fade ball, deep post, digs, I didn’t have any trouble there. It was just curl routes. I just knew I had to work on it after the OTAs.”

Rowe, 23, said the problem was technical; he just needed to get his feet down quicker.

Whatever the problem, whatever the hiccups, it seems as though Rowe’s standing within the organization and on the depth chart isn’t what it once was.

Many thought he would be a starter in 2016, like he was at the end of 2015, but that wasn’t the way things were in the spring. Instead, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks took those positions, and it looks like Nolan Carroll, returning from an injury, and rookie Jalen Mills, who hasn’t yet practiced in pads, are vying for playing time, too.

In back-to-back days earlier this week, Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz failed to mention Rowe’s name while listing players at the cornerback spot. Coincidental omissions or a vocalized unofficial depth chart?

Rowe could possibly go from starter to deep bench player, but that’s not what he’s planning on.

“I know I had a little ups and downs in OTAs, but now the pads are coming on,” Rowe said. “I feel like it’s a fresh start for me and I’m just ready to get out here.”

Pads go on Saturday.

“Right now, I think I still stand in a good position (with the team),” Rowe said. “Football is about the game with pads on. Now we’re really about to see in a couple days when we put the pads on.”

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

He looks like a small back. He's built like a small back. He wants to play like a big back.

Wendell Smallwood, trying to make the Eagles as a reserve tailback, stands 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, but he said he’s got a surprise for defenders that think he’s one of those itty-bitty backs that dances around looking pretty … until they get hit.

“I think that’s what most people expect,” he said Tuesday. “But when I actually put my head down and fight for those extra yards and get under guys, guys start to say, ‘Hey!’ They start to feel me a little bit.

“So I definitely think that started to show my last year in college, and I started becoming more of an inside zone type of runner instead of an outside runner.”

None of this should be a surprise considering Smallwood’s position coach is Duce Staley, who during his 10-year NFL career was much more interested in running over people than around them.

Smallwood is nowhere near as big as Staley, who played at about 235 to 240. But that’s the kind of back he wants to be.

“It’s definitely important to me and it’s definitely what Duce wants me to do,” Smallwood said. “He wants me to hit the holes and hit ‘em hard and that’s the reason he got me here.

“Duce, he doesn’t like small backs. He doesn’t. I don’t think he believes in those guys. He was a big boy. Running dudes over left and right. That’s what he wants.”

Smallwood played sparingly as a freshman at West Virginia, shared time with Rushel Shell as a sophomore, then took over last year when he led the Big 12 with 1,519 rushing yards and added nine touchdowns, 26 catches and a 6.4 rushing average.

The Eagles plucked him out of Morgantown in the fifth round, and in an uncertain running back picture, he’s got a realistic chance to not just make the team but also play a role.

Just don’t expect him to play like a typical guy his size.

“I don’t consider myself a small back anymore,” he said. “People have always said that and I kind of started to agree, but then I looked at some of the guys who are around and I’m not a small back at all.

“I’m not little and the running style I like to do is suited for a big back, and my catching kind of throws people off. I definitely think I’m a mixture of both.”

Smallwood ranked 13th in Division I in rushing yards last year, and his 6.4 average was tied for ninth among backs with at least 200 carries.

He said a lot of defenders expect him to be a finesse back, a guy who likes to juke safeties and linebackers instead of bowling them over.

“Get me going downhill and I’ll get you what I can get you,” he said. “A lot of [defenders] kind of take the easy route and think it’s going to be easy and then the rest of the game they’re going low and trying to take my legs out.”

Look at the Eagles’ running back picture.

The starter is Ryan Mathews, who is talented but injury-prone. The backup right now probably is Kenjon Barner, who has 34 career carries. Then there’s Darren Sproles, whose 3.8 average last year was his lowest since 2009 and second lowest of his 11-year career.

With a strong camp, there’s no reason Smallwood can’t work himself into that picture.

The last frontier for the Northern Delaware native is blitz pickup. Something he was never asked to do at WVU.

“I don’t think I did basically any in college,” he said. “They didn’t ask me to block at all. I was mainly running routes.

“But as soon as I got here, Duce emphasized, ‘If you want to get on the field, you’re going to block. If you’re not going to block, you’re not going to play.'”

Staley’s No. 22 wasn’t available, but Smallwood is happy to wear the jersey number of another one of his favorite backs growing up, Correll Buckhalter’s No. 28, who he seems quite similar to.

It’s not fair to compare Smallwood to Staley, Buckhalter, Brian Westbrook or any other former Eagles back until the pads go on and we see what he’s really made of.

But Smallwood said he’s thrilled Staley is his coach and said there’s nobody he’d rather be playing for.

“I think he’s a great fit for me as a coach,” Smallwood said. “I need a kind of guy who drives me, tough guy, who’s not going to let up, who’s going to keep his foot on my back. I definitely need that kind of coaching.

“Just being around him growing up and seeing what he did when he was here and how he runs and him being one of my favorite backs, I was kind of star-struck to be around him, and now he’s my coach. It’s definitely a great situation for me.”