Take It On the Run: Up-tempo Sixers narrowly defeat Bilbao Spain in pre-season opener

Take It On the Run: Up-tempo Sixers narrowly defeat Bilbao Spain in pre-season opener

Whoo. You might have needed to catch your breath a bit after that surprisingly suspenseful and absolutely exhausting-looking pre-season opener for the Philadelphia Sixers in Bilbao, Spain, in which the Liberty Ballers managed to just escape a loss with a fourth-quarter surge to take the lead, and then a couple clutch Spencer Hawes free throws to stave off the choke job. The Brett Brown era of Sixers ball officially begins with a 106-104 overseas victory.

More importantly than seeing our boys get the W, we also got to see their new team identity, which from the looks of this one couldn't be more clear: Cause turnovers and get out in transition. Prepare for a boatload of homoerotic puns over the course of this Sixers season, because they were seriously getting their hands on some balls today--Doug Collins' black heart would have been warmed by the countless number of deflections this team got, especially with their starters out in the first half, and they ended with 23 steals on the afternoon. (By contrast, last year's squad averaged about 7.4 swipes per game, and never managed more than 14 in any individual contest.)

As stunning as the defense's disruptiveness was, it was the team's play in the open court that made the biggest impression. About 60 seconds into this one, it was pretty damn clear that Brett Brown's talk about pace and pushing the tempo was not just typical pre-season lip service--this team got out and ran like hell. They ran off makes, they ran off misses, and they definitely ran off turnovers, seemingly spending two-thirds of the game in transition.

While this led to some nice plays and a lot of easy points on the break--imperative for a young team like the Sixers, and one lacking in major half-court offensive weapons--it also led to a lot of sloppy giveaways going back the other way, and the team's shaky on-court chemistry (which came as no surprise for a squad that's been totally overhauled and has only played together for a little over a week) was evident on some botched alley-oops and other two-on-ones. Though the Sixers caused steals, they also turned the ball over 26 times--again more than the team registered in any game last year. (To be fair, both numbers were inflated by the game's international officiating, in which just about anything that vaguely resembled a travel, moving screen or offensive foul was ruled as such. And that it was, y'know, a pre-season exhibition game.)

Still, you hope that as the team tightens things up a little bit, their running ways will serve them will over the course of the season, as their blitzing defense and supreme youth and athleticism allows them to stay in games against competition that's probably more talented and clearly more seasoned. At the very least, it's a good deal more entertaining to watch so far than last year's stodgy parade of low-percentage pick-and-pops and plodding iso possessions.

Individual notes on some of the game's more noteworthy players:

Evan Turner was clearly the star of the day, scoring a game-high 25 points with five boards and three assists (though five TOs, natch). More important than the number of points for ET was the way he scored them--he did a good job early of not settling for his trademark contested mid-range jumpers, attacking the basket and drawing 12 free throws for the game, six in the first quarter alone. There might be periods this season where he goes two weeks without drawing that many FTs, and the international officiating again helped a little with that, but it was good to see Evan taking advantage of the relative lack of athleticism on the Spain team by driving and drawing contact whenever possible.

Also good to see ET essentially serve as the closer on this one, checking back in the game during a fourth-quarter lull that saw the Sixers start to slip out of contention, but bringing them back with a couple nice elbow jumpers in which he'd managed to clear enough space with his dribble to get the shots off virtually uncontested, as well as an impressive baseline shot which it didn't seem he'd possibly have room to get up and in. Evan's line on the night would have looked even more impressive had he not failed to finish on a couple easy ones at the basket, but that those shots were even there for him at all was mildly encouraging.

The only real knock on Turner in this one was his occasionally lazy defense, failing to get back in transition on a couple occasions, letting himself get hung up on screens that freed wide-open three-point shooters, and missing a rotation or two that led to easy interior scores for the opposition. But ultimately, a strong evening (Bilbao time) for the Extraterrestrial.

ET's outing stood in strong contrast to that of rookie Michael Carter-Williams, who couldn't score at all--just three points on the night on 1-5 shooting, the 1 being a nice knifing layup drive early in the first--but contributed to the game in just about all other facets. Unlike the rest of the predominantly butterfingered Sixers tonight, MCW managed to notch six assists without turning the ball over once, which was very impressive for such a scattershot game. Both Carter-Williams and Turner did an excellent job throughout of penetrating in the lane and then kicking out to the open shooters in the corners--an obvious staple of Coach Brown's previous administration in San Antonio, and one of the more efficient ways to score in today's NBA.

Carter-Williams also served as one of the team's most active ballhawks on defense, notching three steals and countless more deflections, and generally giving the Bilbao ball-handlers the business with his pressuring defense. MCW did get very badly abused in the post on one occasion, with his slightish frame occasionally making for a bad matchup when he's forced to guard opposing wings in smaller Sixer lineups, but it's clear that his perimeter defense is going to be a real asset for the team this year.

The shooting, without a doubt, is going to be a problem. MCW opted out of taking a couple open jumpers from range early, and when he later actually attemtped a couple, it was clear to see why he was initially hesitant--his first trey missed so badly that Thad was able to finish it like an unintentional alley-oop, and his second bricked wide right enough to miss the rim entirely. When he was forced to pull up in the lane, the lack of any kind of floater or runner in his arsenal showed itself, as he instead lifted for a kind of off-balance fadeaway jumper, missing awkwardly from short distance.

Still, the hope with MCW is that he'll eventually turn into a Rajon Rondo-like player, a threat on offense with his ability to penetrate at will and either score around the hoop or dish to the open man (even if his lack of a jumper occasionally makes him a liability), and a general menace on defense. From the evidence today, there were strong signs that he might get there eventually, even if it seems all but certain we'll have to endure a couple seasons of Carter-Williams shooting in the 30%s before he gets there.

Star of Sixers training camp Tony Wroten had a game that similarly exposed his strengths and weaknesses. Wroten was also an occasional beast on defense and a terror in the open court, at one point scoring an and-one with an almost Derrick Rose-like twisting finish in minimal space off a fantastic Spencer Hawes outlet pass. He looked stronger and more athletic than any other player on the court, and his enormous potential on both sides of the ball was abundantly clear.

There were buts, though. The three steals he racked up were the result of relentless gambling on defense, letting the opposition blow by him on numerous occasions when he failed to get the strip or deflection. And for every highlight-worthy play in the open court, there was another where he missed a bunny or made the wrong read on the odd-man break. (To his credit, Wroten at least kept a lid on his limited outside shooting in the half-court, only attempting one three and making most of his hay on drives to the basket, finishing 3-8 from the field and 10-12 from the line.)

Interestingly, when it came time for the Sixers' final possession of the day/night, Wroten essentially waved off Evan Turner, who had been the Sixers' most reliable scorer and (as MCW sat) best playmaker in the fourth quarter, running a pick-and-roll with Hawes that went nowhere. You like the confidence, I guess, but I wonder if Coach Brown wouldn't have rather Wroten let the more experienced (and game-hotter, if you place stock in such streakiness) Turner make the game-deciding play. Something to keep an eye on from here.

Up-and-down night for Thaddeus Young, whose apparent eagerness to show off his improved ball-handling and outside-shooting skills let to a good number of cringe-worthy slippage turnovers and clanked jumpers. Credit to Thad, though, he made a couple big shots (even a three-pointer!) late, and ended with a very Thad-like line of 14 points on 6-11 shooting, with six rebounds and a team-high five steals, even if he also turned the ball over five times and fouled six times, including on the late-fourth trey attempt that allowed German Gabriel three free throws to tie the game. All in all, decent enough for a first game of the new year.

James Anderson impressed some, scoring 15 points on 6-8 shooting, including 2-3 from distance. He looked a little like J-Rich for us catching-and-shooting beyond the arc, also getting a nice slam on an alley-oop on the break and playing acceptable defense. He wouldn't be the first Sixer to look lights-out in the pre-season and then turn into a bricklayer once the calendar turns to November, but he could be a nice pick-up for the shooting-starved Sixers. (Hollis Thompson also had some moments, scoring nine points on 3-4 shooting.)

The aforementioned game-winning free throws and excellent touchdown pass were just about the only things that Spencer Hawes did well on this one, otherwise going 1-8 from the field with six boards, though at least the one field goal was a big three-pointer to tie the game late. Otherwise, Spence badly missed TWO SEPARATE putback dunks, got generally pushed around on defense, and missed on every one of his needle-threading interior passes, ending the game with two turnovers and zero assists. With the lack of competent, healthy big men on this roster, Spence is definitely gonna get his minutes, but he's gonna have to do better than this during this contract year of his to have any kind of post-Sixers future.

I have no pressing observations on Tim Ohlbrecht, other that he kinda looks like Spence in profile, which can be really confusing, especially since Ohlbrecht wears #20, which resembles Spence's #00 at a glance. He also got dunked on once, furthering the comparison. Get well soon, Lavoy.

Speaking of health, you can really see how brilliantly Nerlens Noel is going to fit on this roster upon his return. The Sixers' perimeter guys clearly have the green light to go for the steal on defense just about whenever possible, which as previously mentioned, leads to a lot of turnovers and runouts, but also leads to a lot of easy penetration and layups when they whiff, especially given the team's current lack of a second line of defense. (Sorry, Spence.)

But with a true shot-blocking threat like Noel back there to provide that second line, and even to purposefully funnel opponents to...it won't fix all the team's defensive woes, but it'll certainly help cover up some of the more catastrophic breakdowns. Not to mention the additional weaponry he'll provide for the team as a mobile big man on the fast break, or the fact that Nerlens was nearly as much of a force stripping the ball (over two steals a game at Kentucky) as he was blocking it. Point is, once this guy's healthy, he's gonna help us in a big way, even if his offensive game doesn't even reach first-year Serge Ibaka levels of sophistication.

Anyway, lotta good, lotta not-so-good, and mostly a whole bunch of who-knows from the Philadelphia 76ers in this early pre-season matchup. Gotta say, though, it's pretty exciting to have all this new shit to talk with this team about after just one game. Beats the hell out of more Swaggy, Kwame and Damien, for sure.

Phillies look to 'keep grinding' after latest rough loss to Rockies

Phillies look to 'keep grinding' after latest rough loss to Rockies

BOX SCORE

The Phillies have scored just two runs in 13 innings against a pair of rookie starting pitchers and the eventual outcome has been two losses to the Colorado Rockies the last couple of nights. The latest was an 8-2 setback on Tuesday night (see Instant Replay). That followed an 8-1 loss on Monday night.

What's happening right now at Citizens Bank Park is ugly. The Phillies are in the midst of a freefall that has seen them lose 19 of their last 23 games. They have been outscored 134-91 over that span.

Now, before we completely lose perspective here, the Phillies remain a building team and they were not expected to contend this season. But they weren't supposed to be this bad, either, and right now they are embarrassingly bad at 15-28.

John Middleton, the team's fiery managing partner, watched several innings of Tuesday night's debacle sitting beside Andy MacPhail in the club president's box. Oh, to have been a fly on that wall. Middleton is committed to a patient rebuild from the ground up, but he's also a man who has made it no secret that he likes to win a little. The show that the Phillies are putting on out on the field these days can't sit well with him. Surely it's not sitting well with the fans. Tuesday night's attendance was just 17,109, the lowest of the season, and many in that group headed home after Gerardo Parra's sixth-inning homer gave the Rockies an 8-1 lead.

"We're just in a big rut right now," manager Pete Mackanin said.

Shortstop Freddy Galvis added that he couldn't remember going through anything this bad.

"We have to keep grinding," he said. "Keep grinding, man. It's pretty tough right now."

Tuesday night's loss offered a tale of two young pitchers. Zach Eflin, the Phillies' 23-year-old right-hander and a veteran of just 18 big-league starts, was hit hard. Meanwhile, German Marquez, the Rockies' 22-year-old rookie, was impressive. He held the Phillies to one run over six innings. He twice faced bases-loaded jams and gave up just one run when he walked a batter.

On Monday night, the Phils were held to one run over seven innings by another rookie, Jeff Hoffman.

Rookie pitchers are often good medicine for struggling teams.

"That's the way I look at it," Mackanin said. "Unfortunately it hasn't happened.

"I know we're better than this. I think the team knows they're better than this. I can't fault the hustle. Someone might say there's no energy. Well, when you don't get any hits, there's no energy."

The Phillies have scored just three runs in the last three games.

The scarcity of runs gives the pitching very little room for error. But in this game, Eflin simply did not keep it close. He gave up 10 hits and eight runs over six innings of work. Phillies killer Charlie Blackmon torched Eflin for a pair of two-run homers and Parra got him for a solo shot.

"A poor outing," Mackanin said of Eflin's work. "He couldn't locate. The ball was up in the zone. He's struggling to keep the ball down.

"When he struck out Blackmon in the first inning, it was a two-seamer with great movement, I thought we're in for a good outing here. But then he couldn't keep the ball down. You have to pitch down or you're going to get hurt."

Eflin has given up 21 hits and 15 runs in his last two starts.

"It's frustrating, but it happens. It's baseball," he said. "There are going to be a lot of times in my career where I give up a lot of hits and a lot of runs. But I'm really not worried about it right now. I know that I'm going to continue to work hard and go out every fifth day and, you know, put up a line of winning baseball."

Blackmon has seven home runs in his last five games at Citizens Bank Park. He has three multi-homer games in Philadelphia.

"He seems to like hitting here," Eflin said. "But I just have to execute pitches. There's no excuse. I just have to be on top of my game."

Right now, the Phillies are at the bottom of their game.

"We have to stay together as a team and keep fighting, try to get out of what's happening right now," Galvis said. "It's a really tough situation, but we have keep playing hard."

NHL Playoffs Senators battle past Penguins to force Game 7

NHL Playoffs Senators battle past Penguins to force Game 7

BOX SCORE

OTTAWA, Ontario -- Craig Anderson and the Ottawa Senators bounced back nicely two days after a blowout loss put them on the brink of elimination.

Anderson stopped 45 shots, Mike Hoffman scored the tiebreaking goal early in the third period and the Senators beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 Tuesday night to force a decisive Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The 36-year-old Anderson was coming off a pair of rough outings, including Sunday when he was pulled after yielding four goals in Ottawa's 7-0 loss in Game 5 at Pittsburgh.

"You can't change what happens in the past," said Anderson, who has credited work with a sports psychologist early in his career for helping him manage the mental side of the game. "From that moment on you have to look forward and get ready for the next one."

Hoffman fired a slap shot through traffic off a pass from Fredrik Claesson to put the Senators ahead at 1:34 of the third. Bobby Ryan also scored a rare power-play goal for Ottawa.

It was quite a response after the drubbing in the previous game.

"I think the biggest message for us was if somebody told us back in training camp in September that we'd have an opportunity to win Game 6 in the Eastern Conference final at home in front of our fans we would've taken it," Ryan said. "So let's not dwell, let's not kick ourselves and put our heads down. Let's embrace this opportunity to extend this for two more days together and go from there."

Evgeni Malkin gave Pittsburgh, vying for its second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final, the lead early in the second period and Matt Murray finished with 28 saves.

"I thought we played a real good game," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I thought we dominated zone time. We had lots of chances. We didn't score tonight. The puck didn't go in the net, but if we continue to play the game that way, then I believe we'll get the result."

Game 7 is Thursday night in Pittsburgh, with the winner advancing to face the Nashville Predators for the championship.

Ottawa was primarily looking for a return to structure in Game 6, beginning with a smoother start -- which they got. Notable in a scoreless opening period were two effective penalty kills, one of which saw Viktor Stalberg get the best opportunity short-handed.

Pittsburgh had four shots with the man advantage, but Anderson stopped them all. It was evident early that he had his game back in this one. He stopped Nick Bonino off a rebound in transition, Scott Wilson off a deflected shot by Phil Kessel, and Bonino again when Kyle Turris gave the puck away.

Anderson then stopped 22 of 23 shots in the second period.

"I think Anderson was the reason that they got this one, he played big for them," Murray said. "But in our room we just focus on what we need to do. We played really well, we just didn't get the bounces and weren't able to put one home."

Anderson's performance was a reminder for Senators coach Guy Boucher of why he took the job with Ottawa in the first place last May.

"I'll be honest with you, if I didn't have a No. 1 goalie, I didn't want the job," Boucher said. "I've lived it for quite a few years, and it's hell when you don't have it because everything you do turns to darkness, and there's nothing that really matters when you don't have a real No. 1 goaltender.

"It's like a quarterback in football and a pitcher in baseball, and we have it," Boucher added.

Murray was also sharp. The 22-year-old, who replaced Marc-Andre Fleury after Game 3, made maybe his finest save of the first on Derick Brassard, who found an open lane down the middle of the ice following a pass from Ryan.

The Penguins appeared to have opened the scoring just over three minutes into the second, but Trevor Daley was deemed to have interfered with Anderson following an Ottawa challenge.

Less than two minutes later though, Pittsburgh took the 1-0 lead anyway off a few moments of brilliance from Malkin. The playoff scoring leading (24 points) bounced off a check from Zack Smith behind the goal and after being stopped on his drive to the net, followed up with a nifty backhand rebound to beat Anderson.

It was the 153rd career playoff point in 142 games for Malkin -- three back of Sidney Crosby for second among active players behind Jaromir Jagr -- who had been jarring with Hoffman a few minutes earlier.

The Senators had little going until a lengthy 5-on-3 advantage for 1:24 just past the midway point of the period. The Ottawa power play, which had gone 0 for 29 in the previous 10 games, came through with Ryan ultimately wiring a one-timer short-side to tie the score.

It was the sixth goal and 15th point of the playoffs for Ryan, who is second on the Senators behind captain Erik Karlsson (16 points).