Welcome, Eagles Fans, to the Flyers Cup Run

Welcome, Eagles Fans, to the Flyers Cup Run

Good morning, and a hearty, open-armed welcome to those of you who are strictly Eagles fans. I kinda feel like the priest at mass on Easter Sunday, welcoming the parishioners who've been away all season and are now in need of some salvation from heartbreak and hang over. Not to confuse things, I've been there with you for every snap, right to the end. But if you're a regular around these parts, it's no secret I've been keeping pace with the Flyers just as closely. 

For those who don't follow hockey religiously, the season can be a bit long, but with the Birds bowing out early, you're just in time to catch up with a Flyers team that is on the rise heading into the second half. Can they win it all? I have no idea—they've been too inconsistent so far to say anything with any certainty about them. But if they even get close, it'll be based on the run they just started, and it's a great time to take a look at this team if you haven't been watching the first half of the season. 

With games on only Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday before next week, the Flyers' schedule seems lighter than it has been in a while. That may be great for the players and their families, but I really could have used a puck drop yesterday afternoon rather than having to watch the NFL proceed without us, which it will now do for the next month

The one bright side is that the timing couldn't be better to get in touch with the city's on-ice activities. Here's a look at the Flyers' season to come, including some encouraging signals we can take from our cross-state rivals. 

A quick peak at the standings will show you a Flyers team that has underachieved embarrassingly. They were supposed to have improved from last season, not be one point ahead of the Islanders and last place in the division. Yes, there was a terrible stretch, and it was fairly recent at that—so recent that it could resurface at any second. We won't lose sight of that. At some points this season, we've wondered whether '09-'10 would end up being worse than '06-'07, because at least the expectations on that team weren't nearly as high. This team was picked by many to win the Cup. This team was built to win now, perhaps even with a lien on its future holdings. 

But right now, the Flyers have won seven of their last nine games. They're suddenly one of the hottest teams in hockey, beating the cupcakes as well as a contender. It took longer than we'd hoped, but the team has the appearances of having finally picked up on new head coach Peter Laviolette's offensive systems. Not to completely overblow a relatively short winning streak, but they've been scoring at will lately, and it's been really fun to watch. 

I've never been in favor of changing the game to attract new fans, having more penalties result in more goals scored on the powerplay, or flashing red pucks, but I can honestly say that this brand of hockey suits casual fans and diehards alike—and it's the exact opposite of the limp and lifeless offensive efforts they'd been giving until this point. 

So if you're just tuning in, your timing couldn't be better. 

One of the more interesting pieces of hockey prose I've read this season comes from the desk of the Delco Times' Anthony San Filippo. It's a bit dated today, having been posted last Wednesday, but ASF does some great analysis on the Flyers' remaining schedule, which isn't all that bad, all things considered. For those who understandably think the team's recent surge is due primarily to the low level of their opponents, well... get ready for more of the same. The considerable majority of the remaining schedule will be played against teams that are currently below .500 (a stat that is a little convoluted given how the NHL awards points for some losses). San Filippo does warn that the travel involved in the schedule is considerable, but overall he paints a picture indicating that has the Flyers clearly making the playoffs. 

I'll add to that by recalling something that was going on in Pittsburgh this time last year. On January 11, 2009, the Penguins were 20-19-4. This season, exactly one year later, the Flyers are 22-19-3. I'm pretty sure I don't need to remind you what happened for the Pens last spring. I'm still scrubbing the image from my eyes with Comet cleanser. Things actually got worse for the Penguins before they got better, including the fact that their coach was fired. 

On January 13, 2009, I wrote this, just before the Flyers and Pens faced off. Pittsburgh was playing terrible, system-failure hockey, but—just like the current Flyers team—it was impossible to believe they were anywhere near as bad as their record indicated. Their roster was too talented, and so is that of the Flyers. 

Just as it was hard to believe that this roster could possibly play as badly as it did for over a month, it should be equally easy to think the same group can turn it around and play the way we always expected them to. There's depth at forward just as there was last season, with an even better amount of pressure coming from the third and fourth lines—which have been the heart of this team (particularly the fourth). The goaltending is actually a strength in most games. And the defense now features a top pairing that can play with the best in the league, as well as do its part in breaking out the offensive rush, which is even more important in Lavvy's systems. If Kimmo and Coburn can turn their fortunes around in the second pairing, the D will be downright scary. 

Every team's season has its peaks and valleys, some obviously more pronounced than others. But peaking at the right time is huge, as evidenced by the Penguins' amazing run last spring. Hopefully the Flyers are just getting started on their run. The first half of 2010 needs a successful team to help us forget the Birds, and at least hold us over until the Phillies come north. But I think the Flyers may even be capable of more than that. 

This is Philadelphia. We're used to turning the page after one season ends without a parade, hoping the next won't end the same. 

Photos courtesy of the talented Will Elliott

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.