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.

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake continues to rack up the accolades.

A couple of weeks after being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, the rising Philadelphia Union star was named to the MLS Best XI team as one of the league’s top players in 2016.

The rest of the team included:

• Forwards Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), David Villa (New York City FC) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
• Midfielders Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas) and Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
• Defenders Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids) and Jelle Van Damme (Galaxy)

Blake’s inclusion on the Best XI is not a surprise considering he already took home top goalkeeper honors. Even though he didn’t have the best numbers in the league, he made the spectacular look ordinary in his first full season as an MLS starter.

But it is unique for the Union, who haven’t had a player make the Best XI since Sebastien Le Toux was included for his 14-goal, 11-assist effort in Philly's 2010 expansion season.

Union winger Chris Pontius, who recently won the 2016 MLS Breakout Player of the Year award, made Best XI while with D.C. United in 2012. Former Union players to be honored on the prestigious list were Bakary Soumare with Chicago in 2008 and Justin Mapp with Chicago in 2006.

Another big honor like this will likely only increase the chatter that Blake could be sold to a big team in Europe soon. But a couple of weeks ago, the Union goalkeeper insisted his only focus for 2017 is on Philadelphia.

“From a personal standpoint, I’m hoping to have an even better season than 2016,” he said at the time. “To be able to go in and be consistent and do everything I can for the Union — and maybe be the goalkeeper to get them their first [MLS] Cup.”

Steve Mason named NHL's 1st star after strong week

Steve Mason named NHL's 1st star after strong week

There’s a number of reasons why the Flyers have a five-game winning streak, why they’re playing better hockey, and why they own the No. 1 wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
 
Perhaps the biggest reason of all is goaltender Steve Mason, who has won four of those games, compiling a 1.71 goals against average and .945 save percentage during that span.
 
Mason was named the NHL’s first “Star of the Week” on Monday. St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko and San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones were second and third stars.
 
“The team is on a roll right now and I’m a benefactor of that,” said Mason, who needs a win Tuesday against Florida to tie his career-high streak of five set Dec. 17-30 in 2013, during his first, full season as a Flyer.
 
“There’s strong play in front of me. The team is playing a little tighter in our defensive zone of late and making the goaltender reads that much more simple. 
 
“Right now, there’s a comfort level with the guys in front of me … Winning five in a row is nice and we’d like to keep making ground in the standings.”
 
His four victories last week were tops in the NHL. Among them, he had a season-high 45 saves in a 3-2 shootout win against Boston. 
 
Like many goalies, Mason prefers action. Games such as the 3-2 overtime win at Ottawa last week when the Senators only fired 21 shots, bother him.
 
“Those games, when you are not getting a lot of shots, the ones you do get will be a high-grade scoring chance,” he said. “And when you’re sitting around a few minutes not seeing the puck and all of a sudden see a chance like that …
 
“It’s more difficult to play [those games] than the games where there is a constant workload and you’re not thinking, but just playing. For myself personally, those are the games I enjoy the most. When I see a lot of pucks.”
 
The Flyers have seen dramatic improvement over the past month in their overall defensive play, from both their defensemen in down-low coverage in the slow and with their forwards on the backcheck.
 
Mason said the team has gone through “growing pains” with trying to integrate some younger bodies to the lineup this season – Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, and Nick Cousins  come to mind.
 
“You have to familiar with everybody,” he said. “Have a constant lineup where guys go out  shift after shift and night after night, you know what to expect from one another. When you have that kind of confidence in guys, it makes playing easier.” 
 
Mason’s 4-2 victory at Nashville on Sunday saw him go over .500 for the first time this season with a 9-8-3 record. 
 
His GAA is coming down at 2.76 while his save percentage has risen to .904.
 
“I was aware of it obviously, just because of the way the year started,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of work to get it above the .900 level.
 
“We’re obviously going to continue to work at getting it even better. The way the team’s playing right now and the way everybody’s clicking, we’re going at a good pace right now.”