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Consecutive playoff series won by Penguins

Eric Fisher’s weekly column about a variety of topics. This week Eric serves up opinions on Nelson Agholor’s troubles, Temple and Penn State pursuing conference titles, Penn’s Ivy League title, and Jimmie Johnson’s place in NASCAR history.

The Greek God of Wrestling previews WWE’s Roadblock. Achilles Heel also reflects on last week’s Raw in Philly, TNA’s latest show from the “Hardy compound” and why Zack Ryder had a bad night on Smackdown despite winning a tag team battle royal.

The NFL is a Teflon league. Despite all the scandals and controversies the NFL endured this season, people continue to watch the game in record numbers.

Archive for the ‘NBA’ Category

NBA Playoffs: Expect the unexpected

Posted by Eric Fisher On April - 15 - 2018 ADD COMMENTS

The NBA playoffs begin with as much talk about who isn’t playing as who is playing. Steph Curry, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard are among the stars starting the playoffs on the sidelines.

There also appears to be more dangerous lower seeds than in recent years. The eighth-seeded Timberwolves and Wizards recently had important members of their backcourt return. The Bucks and Pelicans are also among the lower seeds with legitimate opportunities to pull off a first-round upset.

In the end, won’t we end up with the Cavaliers and Warriors again? Not this year. In fact, it’s quite possible that neither the Cavaliers nor Warriors reaches the finals.

Let’s take a look at the first-round matchups (Sixers-Heat preview is here).

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(seeding in parentheses)

WIZARDS (8) vs. RAPTORS (1)

Wizards: The Wizards are a dangerous eighth seed. Injuries limited guard John Wall to exactly half of the Wizards’ games, so they could be a much more dangerous team if he’s close to full strength. By contrast, guard Bradley Beal has been the Wizards’ rock, leading them in scoring (22.6 points per game) while playing in all 82 games. When he plays, Wall leads the Wizards in assists (9.6 per game) and is second in scoring (19.4). The backcourt of Wall and Beal is the Wizards’ backbone, but they receiver valuable contributions from  forwards Otto Porter Jr. (14.7 points), Kelly Oubre Jr. (11.8), Markieff Morris (11.5) and Mike Scott (8.8), with swingman Tomas Satoransky averaging 7.2 points. The production (8.4 points, 7.6 rebounds) of center Marcin Gortat has dropped off this season. The Wizards will be without guard Jodie Meeks, who was suspended for violating the NBA’s drug policy.

Raptors: The Raptors may have surprised some people by winning the Atlantic Division. Like the Wizards, their strength is their backcourt. DeMar DeRozan (23 points, 5.2 assists) and Kyle Lowry (16.2 points, 6.9 assists, 5.6 rebounds) have been a successful tandem for many years. Center Jonas Valanciunas (12.7 points, 8.6 rebounds) and Serge Ibaka (12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds) provide the Raptors with an inside presence to complement their guards. Swingman C.J. Miles averages 10 points, but the Raptors don’t have much scoring on their bench.

Analysis: The Raptors’ postseason success hasn’t matched their regular season success. The wild card is Wall’s effectiveness. If one backcourt outplays the other, it would likely determine the series. If the backcourts are even, however, the outcome could be swayed by the other players. The Raptors appear to have an edge inside, but the Wizards have better scoring depth. The Wizards’ season has been plagued by a reported feud between Wall and Gortat, who recently echoed head coach Scott Brooks by saying the Wizards were playing selfish basketball. That’s not the type of baggage you want to take into a series with the top seed. Raptors in 6

PACERS (5) vs. CAVALIERS (4)

Pacers: After experiencing ups and downs during three seasons with the Magic and one with the Thunder, guard Victor Oladipo found a home with the Pacers. He averaged 23.1 points, 4.3 assists and 5.2 rebounds this season. The Pacers also feature a solid front line. Center Myles Turner (12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds), forward-center Domantas Sabonis  (11.6 points, 7.7 rebounds) and former Sixer Thaddeus Young (11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds) form an effective frontcourt.  Mercurial guard Lance Stephenson (9.2 points) is a wild card, capable of lighting up the scoreboard or being undisciplined. Guard Cory Joseph (7.9 points is a steady presence).

Cavaliers: The Cavaliers are a mess. They were a mess before they turned over their roster at the trade deadline, and they’re still a mess. LeBron James (27.5 points, 9.1 assists, 8.6 rebounds) is tremendous, but the Cavaliers don’t have much else they can depend upon. Kevin Love averages 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds, but his health is always a question. You can count on J.R. Smith (8.2 points) shooting a lot, but not necessarily on him making a lot of shots. Kyle Korver (9.2 points) is still dangerous from 3-point range. Forward Jeff Green (10.8 points) can score 25 points or fewer than 5 points. You never know. Veteran guard George Hill (9.4 points) and guard Jordan Clarkson (12.6) join Rodney Hood (10.8) in a backcourt that still seems to be trying to mesh after the trade deadline overhaul. Forward Larry Nance Jr. (8.9) can also be an effective contributor.

Analysis: This series is all about LeBron James (left). His teams have won 21 consecutive first-round games. That streak should end against the Pacers, but will the Cavaliers survive the first round? The Pacers seem to be a solid team, with everyone comfortable in their role. The Cavaliers are heavily dependent on James, with different players seemingly stepping up – or not stepping up – each night. If the series goes sour and James has decided he’s leaving Cleveland for free agency, he could pack it in early, as he did during the playoffs the first time he exited Cleveland. Call this one a hunch pick. Pacers in 6

BUCKS (7) vs. CELTICS (2)

Bucks: The Bucks are a dangerous team because of the versatile Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.9 points, 10 rebounds, 4.8 assists. Antetokounmpo can be a matchup nightmare on defense. But the Bucks aren’t a one-man team. Forward Khris Middleton (20.1 points) and guard Eric Bledsoe (17.7) are effective scorers. Guard Malcolm Brogdon, the rookie of the year last season, is still working his way back into form after being sidelined for an extended period of time by an early-February quadriceps injury. John Henson (8.8 points) and Tyler Zeller (6.7) are serviceable at center. Forward Jabari Parker (12.6) is finally becoming a factor after a pair of ACL injuries.

Celtics: The Celtics are obviously hurt by the loss of leading scorer Kyrie Irving (24.4 points) to season-ending surgery. Everyone else has to lift up their game. Center-forward Al Horford (12.9 points, 7.4 rebounds) is a proven veteran. Rookie forward Jayson Tatum (13.9 points and veteran forward Marcus Morris (13.6 points) provide balance on the front line. It’s unclear what to expect from center-forward Greg Monroe (10.3 points, 6.9 rebounds), whose best days were with the Pistons. With Marcus Smart unavailable until, at the earliest, late in this series, Terry Rozier (11.3 points) and swingman Jaylen Brown (14.5) try to hold the backcourt together.

Analysis: When you consider that the Celtics lost forward Gordon Hayward to injury in the first game of the season and have lost Irving and Smart as well, it’s amazing that the Celtics are the No. 2 seed. For the same reasons, they appear to be a vulnerable No. 2 seed. The question is whether the Bucks have enough to get the job done. Bucks in 7

WESTERN CONFERENCE

TIMBERWOLVES (8) vs. ROCKETS (1)

Timberwolves: The Timberwolves, with a ton of young talent, didn’t qualify for the playoffs until defeating the Nuggets in the final game of the regular season. Guard Jimmy Butler, in just his third game back after having knee surgery in February, scored 31 points in the win over the Nuggets. Having Butler (22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists) healthy is essential for any hopes the Timberwolves have of upsetting the top-seeded Rockets. Center Karl-Anthony Towns (21.3 points, 12.4 rebounds) is an impressive presence in the middle, and forwards Andrew Wiggins (17.7) and Taj Gibson (12.2) round out a formidable frontcourt. Guards Jeff Teague (14.2) and Jamal Crawford (10.3) should be even more effective with Butler back.

Rockets: The top-seeded Rockets are led by James Harden (30.4 points, 8.8 assists, 5.4 rebounds). Guard Chris Paul (1.6 points, 7.9 assists, 5.4 rebounds) is a terrific complement to Harden. Paul and Eric Gordon (18 points) join Harden (left) in what might be the NBA’s best backcourt (although the Thunder and Trail Blazers would have something to say about that). Center Clint Capela (13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds) meshes perfectly with the Rockets’ guard-oriented offense, and swingman Trevor Ariza (11.7 points) and Ryan Anderson (9.3) fire away from outside.

Analysis: Butler’s return makes the Timerwolves a dangerous No. 8 seed. It’s too bad for them that they have to open the playoffs against the Rockets, who, even with Butler healthy, have a clear edge in the backcourt. Rockets in 5

THUNDER (4) vs. JAZZ (5)

Jazz: The Jazz are led by rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell (20.5 points) – although Sixers guard Ben Simmons should win the award. Ricky Rubio (13.1 points, 5.3 assists) joins Mitchell in the backcourt. The Jazz front line isn’t bad, either, with center Rudy Gobert (13.5 points, 10.7 rebounds), Derrick Favors (12.3, 7.2) and Joe Ingles (11.5, 4.8). Forward Jae Crowder (9.7 points), picked up in a trade with the Cavaliers, has been a nice addition.

Thunder: Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double (25.4 points, 10.3 assists, 10.1 rebounds). That’s all that needs to be said. Guard Paul George (21.9 points) has proven to be a perfect complement to Westbrook. Carmelo Anthony (16.2 points) has filled his role well after being “the man” for so many seasons with the Knicks and Nuggets. Center Steven Adams (13.9 points, 9 rebounds) is effective as well, but the Thunder don’t have much scoring depth. Former Sixer Jerami Grant (8.4 points) is the only other player even close to averaging in double digits. Of course, you don’t need much scoring off the bench when Westbrook and George are filling up the basket.

Analysis: The Jazz have had a good season, but their backcourt doesn’t match up well with Westbrook and George. Thunder in 4

PELICANS (6) vs. TRAIL BLAZERS (3)

Pelicans: The Pelicans’ playoff hopes rest heavily on the shoulders of center-forward Anthony Davis (28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds). After DeMarcus Cousins (25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds) suffered a season-ending Achilles injury midway through the season, more of the burden fell on Davis. He has handled the added pressure well. Helping Davis is former Sixers guard Jrue Holiday (19 points, 6 assists), forward Nikola Mirotic (15.6 points, 7.4 rebounds) and swingman E’Twaun Moore (12.5 points). A wild card is guard Rajon Rondo (8.3 points, 8.2 assists), who can catch fire or be a turnover machine.

Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard (26.9 points) and C.J. McCollum (21.4) can stake a claim to being the best starting backcourt in the NBA. The problem for the Trail Blazers is that center Jusuf Nurkic (14.3 points, 9 rebounds) is the only other player averaging in double figures. That makes the Trail Blazers easier to defend during the playoffs. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu (9.3 points), guard Shabazz Napier (8.7) and former Sixer Evan Turner (8.2 points) are the next offensive options for Portland.

Analysis: Davis will likely overwhelm Nurkic, which leaves the question of whether the Pelicans can at least contain the Trail Blazers’ backcourt. This series is a tough call, but Davis tips the matchup in favor of the Pelicans. Pelicans in 6

SPURS (7) vs. WARRIORS (2)

Spurs: LaMarcus Aldridge (23.1 points, 8.5 rebounds) is the only available Spur averaging more than 12 points per game. That’s all you need to know about why the Spurs dropped to the seventh seed. With Kawhi Leonard (16.2 points) limited to nine games this season by a quadriceps injury, the Spurs have been limited as well. Rudy Gay (11.5), center Paul Gasol (10.1 points)  and guard Patty Mills (10) are the only other players who average in double figures. Familiar names such as Manu Ginobili (8.9), Danny Green (8.6) and Tony Parker (7.7) still contribute, but they aren’t close to their peak form. Guard Dejounte Murray (8.1) also can be effective.

Warriors: The big question for the Warriors is when will Steph Curry (26.4 points, 6.1 assists) return from a sprained MCL. It won’t be during the first round. That puts more pressure on Kevin Durant (26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists) and Klay Thompson (20 points). Versatile forward Draymond Green (11 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.3 assists) will contribute in a variety of ways. Andre Iguodala (6 points) may have to contribute more on offense. The Warriors could also use a little more from center JaVale McGee (4.8). Former Sixer Nick Young (7.3), veteran forward David West (6.8) and guard Shaun Livingston (5.5) could also play larger roles while Curry is sidelined.

Analysis: Not too long ago, Spurs vs. Warriors would have been the marquee matchup in the first round – or any round. No longer. The Spurs limped into the playoffs, which makes them a good first-round opponent for the Warriors, who don’t want to face a major challenge while Curry is sidelined. Warriors in 4

SECOND ROUND

Eastern Conference

Raptors over Pacers

Sixers over Bucks

Western Conference

Rockets over Thunder

Warriors over Pelicans

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

Sixers over Raptors

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

Rockets over Warriors

NBA FINALS

Rockets over Sixers

Sixers Notebook: Life without Embiid

Posted by Eric Fisher On April - 1 - 2018 ADD COMMENTS

The 76ers have experienced enough basketball without Joel Embiid. The last thing they needed was to experience it again.

But that’s the situation the Sixers find themselves in after Embiid broke the orbital bone under his left eye and sustained a concussion in a collision with rookie guard Markelle Fultz during Wednesday’s 118-101 victory over the Knicks.

The collision occurred 20 seconds into the second quarter. Embiid appeared to bobble the ball, which he was going to hand off to Fultz. Embiid bent over slightly to control the ball, causing Fultz’s head to strike Embiid in the left side of his face as he reached for the ball and tried to rub his defender off Embiid at the same time. Embiid immediately fell to the floor, where he remained for several minutes.

What does this mean for the Sixers? Clearly, they won’t be as bad as they were while Embiid sat out his first two professional seasons. Their roster is considerably better. The question is whether the Sixers can hang secure homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs. (See next item.)

A bigger question might be what this injury means for Embiid. After playing 31 games last season before a knee injury ended his season prematurely, Embiid doubled that total this season, playing in 63 games.

The positive spin is that this injury will enable Embiid to recharge his batteries for the postseason. The negative spin is that he might not be ready to return when the playoffs begin, and might not be in optimal form when he returns.

Embiid will almost certainly wear a mask to protect his orbital bone when he returns to action. Whether the mask will affect Embiid’s play, either by affecting his peripheral vision or by making him reluctant to put himself in the path of potential harm by challenging shots or fighting for rebounds, remains to be seen.

There also could be a long-term psychological impact. Embiid has been saddled with a well-deserved tag of being prone to injury. If he had made it through this season without a significant injury, Embiid would have taken a step toward shedding that tag. Instead, this injury has reinforced Embiid’s reputation for being fragile.

Let’s hope that his psyche is less fragile than his body.

*****

EMBIID’S SURGERY: After waiting a few days for the swelling to go down, Embiid had surgery Saturday to repair his broken left orbital bone. No timetable was given for Embiid’s return to the court. A complicating factor is the concussion he sustained. There is the possibility that the concussion could delay Embiid’s return to practice, which may delay his return to game action. The Sixers’ regular season ends on Wed., April 11, meaning they would likely begin the playoffs approximately two weeks after Embiid’s surgery.

*****

PLAYOFF POSITIONING: The good news is that the Sixers don’t need Embiid to make the playoffs. At 45-30 entering Sunday’s game against the Hornets, the Sixers have already clinched their first playoff berth since the 2011-12 season. What’s left for the Sixers to do is secure homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

They are currently in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game behind the Cavaliers (46-30) and a half-game ahead of the Pacers (45-31). Unless the Wizards (42-34) or Bucks (41-35) win the rest of their games, it seems likely that the Sixers will finish between third and fifth in the conference.

The Sixers have only lost once at Wells Fargo Center during 2018, so they obviously would prefer to have homecourt advantage during the first round. But they will need to achieve that goal without Embiid, who is almost certainly lost for the remainder of the regular season.

*****

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME: There has to be a little sympathy directed toward Markelle Fultz. After taking 68 games to return from what was reported to be a shoulder injury, Fultz is involved in the collision that knocks Embiid out of the lineup.

Nobody is saying that the injury if Fultz’s fault. However, given the speculation that the length of Fultz’s absence had as much to do with the mental side of the game as with any physical injury, there should be concern over his psychological well-being.

After his surprise return against the Nuggets last Monday, Fultz refused to answer any questions about his shoulder. He didn’t say something like “I’d prefer not to answer questions about my shoulder. Let’s stick to tonight’s game.” He literally didn’t make a sound, creating an awkward silence until the next question was asked. Two nights later, Fultz was involved in the collision that injured the team’s best player. The Sixers should be keeping close tabs on Fultz.

*****

STREAKING: The Sixers’ nine-game winning streak entering Sunday’s game against the Hornets is the team’s longest winning streak since the 2002-03 season.

*****

MAKING A POINT: Ersan Ilyasova, who was released by the Hawks, scored 21 points and grabbed 16 rebounds Friday as the Sixers rolled to a 101-91 victory. Do you think Ilyasova was trying to make a point?

*****

WINNING WAYS: It’s very difficult to gain ground in the Eastern Conference these days. Although the Sixers lead the way with their nine-game winning streak, the Celtics have won six straight games, the Cavaliers have won eight of their past 10 games and the Pacers have won seven or their last 10 games, including their last four.

*****

WILD WEST: Although the Eastern Conference playoff field is almost settled – the Pistons are long shots to catch the Heat for the final playoff berth – the West is extremely tight. Entering Sunday’s games, the Spurs are fourth in the conference, just a half-game ahead of the Timberwolves and Thunder and only one game ahead of the Jazz and Pelicans.

Meanwhile, the Clippers and Nuggets (both 41-35) are just two games behind the Jazz and Pelicans. In summary, seven teams are within three games of one another as they battle for five Western Conference playoff berths.

*****

LOOKAHEAD: After Sunday’s game in Charlotte, the Sixers return home Tuesday (7 p.m.) to host the Nets. They face the Pistons the next night (7 p.m.) in Detroit before returning home for a crucial game Friday (7 p.m.) against the Cavaliers and a Sunday game (1 p.m.) against the Mavericks.

Couturier scores Game 5 game-winner