Villanova and Penn tip off in NCAA Tournament Action

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Embed from Getty Images

Selection Sunday whets the appetite, and the First Four serves as an adequate appetizer, but beginning at noon on Thursday, we’ll finally receive the main course with the tip-off of the 2018 NCAA tournament. While watching any game in the tournament field can make for an exciting viewing experience, college basketball fans in the Philadelphia area have the added bonus of not one, but two teams in the field of 64.

Villanova finds itself in the tournament for the sixth straight season, a run obviously highlighted by the school’s 2016 National Championship. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Penn returns to the postseason for the first time since 2007. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait until day two to see these two Big Five schools in action, with both schools set to take the floor Thursday.

#16 Penn vs. #1 Kansas – 2:00pm

Steve Donahue’s club exceeded all expectations this season, both winning the Ivy League regular season title and prevailing over Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament final to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the tournament. Popular consensus appears to be that the Quakers were jobbed in receiving a 16-seed, and the data backs it up. According to 538’s Elo Rating, the Quakers are the best 16th seed of all time.

As a result, a groundswell has bubbled up that if ever a 16-seed is going to beat a 1-seed (they’re 0-132 thus far), this might be the time it happens. The first thing helping Penn’s cause is Kansas’ 7’0″ center Udoka Azubuike potentially being hampered by a knee injury that caused him to miss the Big 12 tournament. If he’s not at full strength, that would be a huge boon for a Penn roster that will be undersized to the Jayhawks, particularly for the scoring prospects of Quakers star big man AJ Brodeur.

Also, a lot has been made about how Penn has the second-best three-point field goal defense in the country. If the Quakers’ ability to defend on the perimeter proves to be more of an inherent ability than random variance, they could neutralize a Kansas team that shot 40.3% from behind the arc (12th-best nationally) and made the 10th-most threes in the country this season. Turn this game into a three-point shootout and force the Jayhawks to miss more than usual and you have a chance. Or so the story goes.

Yet, then there’s senior Devonte’ Graham, who earned Big 12 Player of the Year honors, leading the Jayhawks in scoring (17.3 ppg) and assists (7.5 apg). He’s the type of impactful guard that can put a team on his back in this tournament. Meanwhile, fellow senior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, knocking down 45.3% of his triples on close to 7 attempts per game. It’s one thing to defend well in the Ivy League and against the soft non-conference schedule the Quakers played this season. These Jayhawks are in a different class.

Undeniably, there’s a huge talent disparity between the two teams, and just making the tournament is a terrific accomplishment for a Penn program that had its first above-.500 season since 2011-12. Still, they call it March Madness for a reason and a 1-seed has to lose eventually. Why not now? Maybe?

#1 Villanova vs. #16 Radford – 6:50pm

Later in the day, Jay Wright’s squad will begin their tournament run coming off last weekend’s exciting overtime victory over Providence to win the Big East Tournament. Near the top of the polls all season, with quite a few weeks as the #1 team in the nation, Villanova enters the tournament field as the second 1-seed behind Virginia. Most importantly for the Wildcats, Jay Wright has his 8-man rotation back to full health, after missing guards Phil Booth and Collin Gillespie for prolonged stretches this season.

The wonderfully-named Radford Highlanders enter the field of 64 having won eight straight games, most recently defeating LIU-Brooklyn 71-61 in Tuesday night’s First Four contest. Radford is led in both scoring and rebounding by 6’5″ junior Ed Polite, Jr., who recorded a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds against LIU-Brooklyn. As is the case for many mid-majors, the Big South champions lack size; no one on the roster for the Highlanders stands taller than 6’8″.

Really though, there’s no need to overthink this game. Remember that 0-132 thing about 16-seeds against 1-seeds? While people are trying to talk up Penn, no one gives Radford much of a chance. Villanova has a projected lottery pick in Mikal Bridges and one of the four Naismith finalists in Jalen Brunson. That level of talent should simply overwhelm the Highlanders. The Wildcats should safely advance and take on the winner of Virginia Tech and Alabama on Saturday.

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Pacers prevail over Sixers in potential playoff preview

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Indiana 101, Philadelphia 98 – Box Score

If the NBA playoffs had tipped off Tuesday night, the Pacers and Sixers would have faced each other as the 3 vs. 6 matchup in the Eastern Conference. Unsurprisingly then, the Wells Fargo Center had a playoff atmosphere to it during the final regular meeting between the two teams. Everyone on hand recognized the terrific chance for Philadelphia to make a serious move up the standings, as the game was one of only three remaining for the Sixers against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

As we so often see from young teams though, the Sixers did not look quite ready for the “playoff stage”. Despite Robert Covington holding Indiana star Victor Oladipo to 11 points on 4-21 shooting, Philadelphia’s own miscues held them back from victory. The Sixers turned the ball over 21 times, with Joel Embiid himself nearly matching the turnover total of the entire Pacers team (8 for Joel compared to 9 for Indiana). Philadelphia also did a poor job on the defensive glass; Indiana had 14 offensive rebounds, including 5 by longtime Sixer Thad Young, still turning garbage into gold while wearing Pacers gold.

While his turnovers were crippling to the team’s chances, Embiid was still the team’s most reliable weapon on the evening, finishing with 29 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Thanks to Embiid’s 10 points in the fourth quarter, the Sixers were in a position to tie the game in the closing seconds. Unfortunately for the home crowd, the big man’s three-point attempt to send the game to overtime came up short.

Somewhat under the radar, Ben Simmons finished with 10 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. It was Simmons’ seventh triple-double of the season, tying Magic Johnson for second-most ever by a rookie (no one is catching the 26 as a rookie by Oscar Robertson). Still, as impressive as that accomplishment is, you’d like to see more aggressiveness from your team’s lead ball handler. Simmons did not attempt a single shot in over 9 minutes of action in the fourth quarter and only had 2 free throw attempts on the game. I know the team is feeding Embiid down the stretch, but it would be nice for Philadelphia’s other young star to help carry the late-game burden.

A win would have pulled the Sixers within one game of Indiana in the standings; instead, they’re now three games back of the third seed, seemingly too wide a gap this late in the season. They’re also just a half-game up on Milwaukee for 7th place and a full game ahead of Miami for 8th. Yet, Tuesday night’s loss was remarkably the first for the Sixers at the Wells Fargo Center in 2018. Their next 5 games come against the Knicks, Nets, Hornets, Grizzlies, and Magic. I wouldn’t worry quite yet.

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Sixers crisply handle their business in Brooklyn

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 120, Brooklyn 97 – Box Score

With many of the eyes in the basketball world focused on college basketball’s Selection Sunday, it would be easy to forget the crucial playoff races taking place in the NBA’s final weeks. Fortunately for Philadelphia fans, there were no signs of distraction from the Sixers, who took care of business in Brooklyn from the very beginning of the Sunday night’s game.

After the Nets converted on their opening possession, the Sixers scored the game’s next 10 points and never looked back. Philadelphia shot a blistering 67% from the field prior to halftime, recording yet another 70-point first half. Following years of watching the Sixers slog their way along with a league-worst offense, these recent scoring outbursts have looked like watching an entirely different sport. Although the defense was slow to get going, the Sixers finally got their act together in the final period. holding Brooklyn to 14 points in the fourth quarter to enable Brett Brown to empty the entire bench for the game’s last handful of minutes.

For the Sixers, it was the sort of balanced team effort coaches dream about when they first drape thew whistle around their necks. All five starters finished in double figures, as did Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli, and T.J. McConnell off the bench. McConnell was at his utmost peskiest with 6 assists and 4 steals. Robert Covington shook off his 0-10 performance against Miami, going 3-7 from three, and chipping in with 4 assists, a steal, and 2 blocks. Joel Embiid led the way with an efficient 21 points, and Dario Saric tallied 18 points on 8-11 shooting.

Throughout the game, the Sixers did a terrific job moving without the ball and finding their teammates with crisp, occasionally inventive passes. Philadelphia nearly doubled Brooklyn’s assist total (33-17), and most against character, only turned it over 9 times.

The following play was emblematic of the beauty on display all night at the Barclays Center. With Embiid drawing attention out of the post, Covington took advantage of Spencer Dinwiddie turning his back to his own man, and made the proper dive to the basket. A perfect bounce pass from JoJo and the finish from RoCo equaled two points for Philadelphia. Over and over again, the Sixers carved up the Nets defense with that kind of surgical precision.

Sunday marked the beginning of what is a very easy end-of-the-season schedule for Philadelphia, as noted by Vice Sports’ Michael Pina.

Still, the Sixers have to take care of business on the court. After all, they already lost to the Nets in the team’s first meeting. Sunday night in Brooklyn was the ideal scenario, proper execution allowing the superior talent to shine through, enabling some rest for Embiid and the starters in the closing minutes. The win kept the Sixers one game ahead of Miami and just 2 games behind Indiana for third place, with Cleveland and Washington in-between in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.

Philadelphia can make up ground on Indiana tomorrow night at home, before a very favorable five-game stretch featuring the Knicks, Nets, Hornets, Grizzlies, and Magic. A win against the Pacers and we could easily be looking at a third-place Sixers team in two weeks.

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Weary Sixers fall in Miami

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Miami 108, Philadelphia 99 – Box Score

With less than 20 games left in the regular season, every game is critical at this point. Facing a Miami team directly behind them in the standings though, Thursday night’s game in South Beach carried an added bit of importance for the Sixers. Ultimately, whether it was due to it being the third game of a 4-game road trip, the famous nightlife in the city where the heat is on (to use a Philadelphia native’s phrase), or simply an off night in a long NBA season, the Sixers just didn’t have the energy to turn it up in the fourth quarter and come away with the victory.

Philadelphia led by 1 heading into the final frame, but a few minutes into the fourth, the Heat went on a 10-1 run to pull away. The Sixers struggled with their usual unforced turnover difficulties (18 on the game, 1 above their season average), and exhibited low energy on the defensive end. Miami went off for 35 points in the fourth quarter, as the Sixers couldn’t string the necessary stops together to make a game of it down the stretch. It certainly didn’t help that the Heat were on fire from the outside, shooting 14-26 from behind the arc, or that Dwyane Wade once again made it look like he found the Fountain of Youth in his return to Miami, scoring 16 points off the bench. Seriously, does this look like the guy people have been calling washed up for months, if not years?

Often this season, when the Sixers have been struggling to this degree, they’ve leaned on Joel Embiid to play like an MVP-caliber talent and rule the day. Lately though, the big man has been struggling, as it appears he’s hit a wall in the face of the largest workload of his life. The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann noted that Embiid has now played more minutes this season than his past four years combined.

The 1,650 minute threshold carries additional significance. As pointed out by Bobby Marks, it was the necessary mark set by the team within Embiid’s rookie extension to bypass the injury clause; Embiid now needs to reach the mark in at least two of the next three seasons.

Clearly, the front office viewed this workload as evidence of a successful season; Embiid has reached it with a month left. But he looks a little worse for wear as a result. After Dwight Howard scored 30 two nights earlier, Hassan Whiteside worked his way against Embiid for 26 points on 9-12 shooting. Embiid had no steals or blocks, unusual for a man as generally active as him defensively. On the offensive end, Embiid shot just 5-18 from the field, with many of his jumpers simply coming up short, clear evidence of not having his legs.

That’s not to pin the loss on Joel; I’m just pointing out that so often he’s been good enough to lift everyone else up, and that hasn’t been there lately for perfectly understandable reasons. The rest of the supporting cast needs to play better. Aside from J.J. Redick, who scored 18 points on 4-6 shooting from three, even the guys who contributed something had a “yeah, but” aspect to their night.

Dario Saric led the team with 20 points, continuing his torrid shooting stretch by knocking down 4 of 7 three-pointers. Yeah, but he led the turnover brigade with 6 giveaways.

Ben Simmons had a well-rounded line of 10 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. Yeah, but he had 5 turnovers himself.

Robert Covington was the team’s best defender, coming away with a game-high 4 steals and a outstanding block to deny a Heat lay-up in transition. Yeah, but he shot an absolutely putrid 0-10 from the field.

Either Embiid needs to play like an All-NBA player, or the rest of the team has to be nearly flawless. Neither thing occurred Thursday night and the Sixers dropped their second game of the road trip as a result. They’re now tied in the season series with Miami (the next tiebreaker will be conference record) and hold a one-game advantage over the Heat in the standings, while sitting 1.5 games back of 5th-place Indiana. Every game matters. Fortunately, Sunday in Brooklyn should prove as an easier way to close out the road trip before heading back to Philadelphia.

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Sixers get back on track in Charlotte

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 128, Charlotte 114 – Box Score

After a one-game detour with whatever the heck happened in Milwaukee Sunday night, the Sixers got back on the road to success Tuesday night in the Queen City. For the second straight game, Philadelphia jumped out to a hot start, again scoring over 70 points in the first half. A 21-4 run late in the second quarter turned a 2-point deficit into a 15-point lead, and this time around, there would be no blowing the double-digit lead.

It was a total team effort across the board for Philadelphia, with all five starters finishing with at least 14 points, but the top star on both ends of the court was Robert Covington. Much maligned lately while stuck in a prolonged shooting slump, the forward led the team with 22 points, shooting 5-9 from three. It was the first 20-point game for Covington since December. Hopefully, this performance was a sign that the streaky shooter is entering one of his hot stretches.

On the defensive side of the ball, Covington was the primary defender on Kemba Walker, hounding the All-Star point guard into just 5 points on 1-9 shooting. As if that stellar work wasn’t enough, Covington also blocked Michael Kidd-Gilchrist so hard that MKG was ejected seconds later for arguing the no-foul call.

While Covington’s night represented a positive turnaround, one guy who hasn’t been struggling with his shot and just needed to keep the train rolling is Dario Saric. The Homie continued his stellar sophomore season, knocking down 4 of 7 threes for 19 points; he is now shooting 38.7% from downtown on the season.

Meanwhile, the guy who gets knocked for not shooting threes at all, keeps getting it done regardless. Ben Simmons tallied 16 points on 8-9 shooting from the field, 8 rebounds, and 13 assists. When he’s not orchestrating the offense, Simmons does a tremendous job either slashing off the ball in the half court or getting out in transition to finish around the basket. One left-handed alley-oop slam off a T.J. McConnell dish had the decent-sized Sixers contingent in attendance going wild.

Unlike the Milwaukee game, the Sixers received a better effort from the bench, helping to maintain that lead when the starters needed a blow. Both Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Bellinelli finished with 11 points, with Ilyasova taking a handful of charges and Belinelli finishing a game-high +26 in his 28 minutes.

This was was nothing special. It didn’t require transcendent play from Philadelphia’s young stars. Rather, we just saw a solid roster of players doing a good job playing within themselves and capably handling business on the road. In a tightly-packed Eastern Conference where the Sixers currently find themselves sitting in 6th place, here’s hoping we see more performance like it.

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Sixers double down on blown leads in loss to Milwaukee

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

-Milwaukee 118, Philadelphia 110 – Box Score

And the Oscar for biggest collapse goes to…it’s a tie! The winners are the Philadelphia 76ers in the first quarter and the Philadelphia 76ers in the third quarter.

Although they’ve been much better in this area recently, the Sixers have certainly lost their share of big leads this season. However, I don’t think there was a game this season prior to Sunday night when the team lost not one, but two huge leads. In the process, the team missed a huge opportunity to advance in the Eastern Conference standings.

With over 400 listeners of the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast in attendance, chanting “Trust the Process” and cheering on the Sixers, there were plenty of times Sunday night’s game in Milwaukee sounded like a Sixers home game. At the onset, the team played like they have in not losing in South Philadelphia in 2018. There was a 10-0 run to start the game. Dario Saric (25 points on 9-11 shooting) shot a perfect 6-6 from the field for 15 points in the first 9 minutes of the game. Ben Simmons had 8 assists in the first quarter alone. The Sixers led by as many as 20 points and finished with a whopping 43 points in the opening frame.

Of course, it was still far too early to consider the game over. Suddenly, a Jabari Parker buzzer-beating three to end the quarter, followed by some knockdown triples from the immortal Jason Terry, and the Bucks had fought their way back to tie the game at 51. Not to worry though. The Sixers immediately went on a 7-0 run to retake control. Former Buck J.J. Redick (17 points, 4-6 from three) hit a couple big threes, and Philadelphia was back up 12 at halftime. They would extend the lead to 19 a few minutes into the third quarter. Surely, this time the lead would stick?

Alas, the first collapse was mere prelude to the Day After Tomorrow-like meltdown the Sixers underwent in the third quarter. Milwaukee ended the quarter on a 21-0 run; after leading in the quarter by as many as 19, they entered the fourth trailing by 7.

While it’s nice the Sixers have two unicorns, the Bucks have one of their own and Giannis Antetokounmpo was an unstoppable force of nature in the second half. He accounted for 14 points and 2 assists in the third, ending the game with a ridiculous line of 35 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block.

While Philadelphia had no answer for the Greek Freak, a 21-0 run takes a two-sided effort, and the team absolutely shot themselves in the foot on the other end of the court. The Sixers gave the ball away 9 times in the third quarter alone, on their way to a season-high 26 turnovers. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons combined for as many turnovers (13) as Milwaukee had as an entire team, and former Redick somehow had 5 giveaways, forcing sloppy passes in traffic and even dribbling it off his foot out-of-bounds at one point.

The Sixers didn’t have a third big surge in them, missing a golden opportunity to move into 5th place and just 1 game back of 3rd-place Cleveland in the standings. Instead, they remain in 6th place, with Milwaukee a half-game back and now leading the season series 2-1. On the surface, a road loss to Milwaukee where Giannis plays like an All-NBA level talent isn’t inexcusable. But the Sixers showed they’re the better team in building those 20 and 19-point leads. More than anything, they beat themselves. When they’re ripping off 7 straight wins and topping LeBron on the road, it’s easy to forget they’re still a team led by very young stars. Nights like Sunday in Milwaukee bring it back into perspective.

Yet, what other fan base would head to Milwaukee in droves to protest the franchise center missing out on Rookie of the Year? There’s still something special here. Don’t forget it because of one terrible game.

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Sixers show LeBron they’re ready for the big stage

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 108, Cleveland 97 – Box Score

There was no shortage of storylines heading into Philadelphia’s nationally-televised game in Cleveland Thursday night. Milwaukee had lost the night before, giving the Sixers a lead by mere percentage points for 6th place in the Eastern Conference. Of course, because the game was in Cleveland, and involved LeBron James, everything was about the possibility of his coming to Philadelphia in free agency in July.

We had the Philadelphia-area business buying billboards outside Cleveland imploring LeBron to come to Philadelphia (which LeBron deemed “dope”), rumors about him or a representative visiting high schools in the Philadelphia area for his son over the All-Star break (which LeBron fiercely denied), and all the chatter among those in the know in the league in recent weeks, with some folks even considering it a 50/50 proposition.

All the months-away drama and speculation aside, the action on the court Thursday night turned out to be equally captivating. Fresh off a month of February where he averaged a triple-double, King James certainly came to play, logging 30 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists across 39 minutes of action. LeBron was clearly in “flip the switch” mode, attacking the basket time and time again as only a 6’8″ statue of marble with T-1000-like maneuverability can. This play where he somehow dribbled behind his back and between his own teammates’ legs, before switching hands in mid-air to absorb the contact and make the lay-up, is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever seen. I don’t care one bit if the Tristan Thompson aspect of it was a little lucky.

Fortunately for the Sixers, LeBron didn’t have much help from his Cavaliers teammates. Filling in for a suspended J.R. Smith in the starting lineup, Rodney Hood was a -20 in 39 minutes, shooting 5-14 from the field. Overall, Cavaliers not considered one of the greatest players to ever play the game shot just 38.1% on the evening.

Hey LeBron, do you know where you could get some help? In Philadelphia, with young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It wasn’t even one of Embiid’s better games, shooting 7-18 from the field, but he still ended up with 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists. Most amazingly, he showed off what I think is his absolute ceiling (but who knows at this point) for scoring the basketball no matter what the defense throws at him. Late in the fourth quarter, Embiid sank a spinning, fadeaway, baseline jumper with two Cavaliers draped on him. After the game, he said he was channeling his inner Kobe. I don’t care who he’s trying to emulate; I just know there’s nothing anybody in this or any other league across all of time could do to stop it.

As for LeBron’s Klutch Sports protege, Ben Simmons, he was clearly trying to show out for his mentor. The Rookie of the Year favorite was more aggressive than usual, attempting four shots from outside 10 feet (only making one, but the threat was there), and just showing no fear in attacking LeBron in isolation situations. Simmons was pivotal during the third quarter, scoring 10 of the team’s 18 points to help keep the Sixers in the driver’s seat. On the whole, he played a tremendous, all-around efficient game, finishing with 18 points on 8-14 shooting, 9 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block. It was a line LeBron would have been proud of while playing as the Sixers in NBA 2k.

After the game, LeBron further fanned the flames of the heading-to-Philadelphia narrative, shouting out Simmons and Embiid on Instragram. You know, as one normally does when getting beaten by an up-and-coming team that you could face in the playoffs.

There is also plenty for Sixers fans to be excited about in the here and now. The win maintains their 6th spot in the East, and they’re only 2.5 games behind Cleveland for 3rd place. More importantly, they just went on the road and calmly took care of business against a team many still consider the favorite to reach the Finals. The stars showed out, J.J. Redick shook off his miss at the buzzer last game to have a hot shooting night, Dario Saric was knocking down shots and getting chippy with the Cleveland bench. What more could you want from this team right now? Let’s enjoy this incredibly fun season and worry about LeBron later.

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2018 Oscars Picks

By Dan Urda (@Eagles_Dan88)

Embed from Getty Images

If you listened to the latest Philly Fast Break podcast, you heard Sean admit to not being too familiar with the films that are represented in this year’s Oscar nominations. First off, if you did not listen to that mailbag podcast, do so right now, it is great. But while Sean has terrific thoughts on everything from LeBron potentially coming to the Sixers to the Phillies 2018 outlook, Oscar talk is where I come in.

Off the bat, I will admit that the Oscars are stupid. It is Hollywood’s way of patting itself on the back, a room full of people whose idea of their own importance is usually much larger than their actual importance. Every year people get angry that their favorite film was not nominated, sometimes rightfully so, and many winners don’t stand the test of time. In the last 15 years, The Artist and Crash have both won the Oscar for Best Picture. Just think about that for a second.

But I love movies, and following the awards circuit is part of my obsession with the film industry as a whole. In the past, I have made money off the event as well, as sportsbooks post odds for each category. Unfortunately, in recent years there have been very few actual races, meaning the favorite is juiced extremely high and there is little value in betting on them. As you will see in this column, that is the case with most of the awards this year, but I will do my best to seek out some value.

However, unlike recent years, this column is less about betting on the Oscars and more about just discussing the categories. If you have the passion for movies that I do, I always welcome film discussion on Twitter @Eagles_Dan88. Hot and cold takes are welcome. On to the categories:

The Ones You Don’t Care About:

I have contributed to this site in various forms for a few years now, and I know the audience. I know that an Oscar column in general is pushing it, but you certainly do not care about some of the lesser known categories. So rather than spend paragraphs talking about sound editing and live action short films, I figured I would just mention some good bets and some fun things to look for.

As I said, there are very few actual races this year, so most of the lines are astronomical. I think there is value in Dekalb Elementary to win Best Live Action Short Film. The subject matter, a school shooting, is extremely prominent at the moment, and that will absolutely impact the voting. The odds seem pretty good to me at -300. Also, I do expect the Kobe Bryant documentary, Dear Basketball, to win for Best Animated Short. This one currently has odds of -400, so you won’t get rich off these bets, but they should start your night off in the green.

There are two legitimate toss-ups that I am actually somewhat excited to see who wins. For Best Original Song, the winner will either be Remember Me (-175), from Coco, or This is Me (+125), from The Greatest Showman. I think there is some value in the dog here. First off, This is Me is awesome. The song is such a banger that it was used in Olympic promotions. Secondly, hot take: I am a little tired of Pixar films. Sure, most of them are good movies, but I don’t like how recently they just have to put out a film and they automatically win Oscars (Brave beating out Wreck-it-Ralph years ago still angers me).

The only downside is sometimes stuffy voters do not want to vote for the song because they don’t like the film, and The Greatest Showman is not liked by many critics, despite being a huge hit and a crowd pleaser.  Still, ill take it at plus money.

Finally, the category of Best Documentary is extremely interesting. The favorite at -400 is Faces Places, a delightful film about director Agnes Varda’s trip around France with her photographer.  That description does not do it justice. However, Icarus, about Russian doping in Olympic sports, might be too topical for voters to ignore. You can argue that at +375, there is legitimate value here.

Still, I am rooting hard for Faces Places. If Varda wins at age 89, it would make her the oldest Oscar winner of all time. She is awesome, and seeing her accept the award could be one of the moments of the night. I will not be betting on this, but it is something to watch for during the show. Fun fact, it is widely believed that screenwriter James Ivory, who is also 89, is going to win the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Agnes Varda is 8 days older than him! There is a chance, depending on the order of the awards, that Ivory wins, becomes the oldest Oscar winner of all time, and holds that title for about 15 minutes.

Other wagers:

War for the Planet of the Apes for Best Visual Effects: -125
A Fantastic Woman for Best Foreign Language Film: -185

The Six Major Awards:

Realistically, the casual filmgoer cares more about these six categories than any other.  wo of those categories, Best Actor and Best Director, have stone cold locks to win. Guillermo Del Toro is going to win Best Director for The Shape of Water (more on this film later). Gary Oldman is going to win Best Actor for The Darkest Hour. While neither movie is an all-timer, both of these film veterans brought something special to films that could have been duds without them. While I strongly encourage people to seek out Pan’s Labrynth, by far Del Toro’s best film to date, it is good to see the Academy ready to reward one of the most creative minds in the business. And Gary Oldman is just awesome.

Best Supporting Actress

This just misses being lumped in with the “locks” I mentioned above. Allison Janney is going to win this for I, Tonya; she has won all of the major awards leading up to this one and there is no reason to think that won’t continue. I just don’t understand how this became the runaway choice. Between Janney and Lady Bird’s Laurie Metcalf, there are many similarities between both actresses and their respective roles. Both played the mother of the strong, eccentric female lead character. Both actresses are extremely well respected, but known more for their work outside of the silver screen; Janney is a television veteran and Metcalf has built a remarkable career on the stage.

It is too bad that this was likely the only chance for both of them to win an Oscar and it had to happen in the same year. Janney is projected to win, but I found Metcalf’s performance to be more memorable. I found her character to be real, while Janney, who was hysterical don’t get me wrong, was more of a caricature. Oh well, I do think there is an ever so slight chance of an upset, but in all likelihood, Allison Janney will add an Oscar to her mantle. At -1000 though, there is no value betting on her.

Best Supporting Actor

There is heavy chalk here as well, as Sam Rockwell is widely expected to win Oscar gold for his work as the dim-witted, racist police officer in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  That film, which we will discuss later, has faced a lot of backlash as of late, and while it doesn’t seem to appear that the backlash will trickle down into this category, it is at least something to think about.

Rockwell is a very respected character actor. My issue is this probably isn’t even a top 5 role for him. If you have not seen Moon, finish this column and seek it out immediately (editor’s note: now available on Netflix). Just pretend that the voice of the AI on his spacecraft isn’t Kevin Spacey, if that will make you feel better. I do expect Rockwell to win this award, but keep an eye on William Dafoe; like Rockwell, Dafoe is a very well respected supporting actor who has a great body of work, and if voters decide to hold the vileness of Rockwell’s character against him, it is possible that Dafoe pulls the upset. Nothing worth betting on here though.

Best Actress

Another one that could have been listed with the stone cold locks, Frances McDormand is going to win this award. At age 21, Saoirse Ronan now has three nominations, and while she will likely win an Oscar or two in her career, this does not appear to be her year. My vote would have gone to Sally Hawkins for The Shape of Water, but for some reason, the fact that I was an extra in The Happening does not get me an Oscar vote. No value here at all.

Best Picture

Now I am going to rant a little bit, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. It has become an annoying trend that in between the time when front-runners start to emerge and the night the Oscars are announced, smear campaigns for certain films start popping up. It happened last year with La La Land and this year it was Three Billboards that felt it the worst. They are usually for nonsense reasons. The ripping of La La land was that it was “too white.” The case against Three Billboards is actually a fairly in-depth one, but much of it is based upon the redemption arc of Sam Rockwell’s character. Whether or not this despicable character deserves redemption is half of the issue, and the other half is how he decides to achieve it.

There have been numerous “Actually, Three Billboards is bad” articles written in the last month, and while the arguments have merit, what is the point of these smear campaigns? I believe that the writer and the director have every right to tell their story about their characters. I fear that in 5 years, any film that does not have a black character, a Hispanic character, a gay character and a trans character is going to be ripped for lack of diversity. Of course at least one of them must be a woman. Oh, and all of those characters have to be strong and well-developed. And a white character can’t be the hero in the end, because we can’t perpetuate the stereotype that the minority characters needed him.

I don’t mean to turn this into a political article, but the diversity issue in films is extremely relevant right now. Three Billboards is being ripped because the characters are stupid, selfish, racist and overall pieces of garbage. But you know what, it is okay for there to be a movie that has characters that are racist pieces of garbage! In no, way, shape, or form does the film glamorize them for being this way, quite the opposite actually. It is beyond annoying that this subtext now goes into deciding if a film is “worthy” of award season praise. If voters liked the film, they should vote for it. If they didn’t, they shouldn’t.

Having said all that, while not being offended or triggered by it, I found Three Billboards to be a solid B, no better, no worse. I would not vote for it to win Best Picture, but only because I did not like it that much, not because I found it problematic. I feel the same way about The Shape of Water.  Guys, there is a chance that we are about to have a Best Picture winner where a woman has sex with a fish monster. Yes, the film was beautiful and Del Toro is amazing at what he does. But in one scene, a woman fills her apartment with water, covering the doors with towels, and has underwater sex with a fish monster. She also faces no consequences for the flooding she causes in her building. I can’t get over that.

My favorite film of the Oscar nominees is Get Out, and I think that at +800, it has a legitimate chance to pull off an upset. I like that both of the favorites have issues and neither is a perfect film; these aspects work to Get Out’s advantage. The race aspect can’t be ignored here, and I am sure there will be social justice voters to help its cause. But aside from any exterior motivations, Get Out was just an incredible film that deserved every bit of praise it got. It is poignant, relevant, and incredibly smart. I would not vote for Get Out in order to appear “woke” or because I didn’t like that characters in other films weren’t good people, but I would vote for it because it was the Best Oscar nominated film of 2017.

Picks Recap:

War for the Planet of the Apes for Best Visual Effects: -125
A Fantastic Woman for Best Foreign Language Film: -185
DeKalb Elementary for Best Live Action Short: -300
Dear Basketball for Best Animated Short: -400
This is Me for Best Original Song: +125
And my long shot, Get Out for Best Picture: +800

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Ersan Ilyasova returns to Philadelphia

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Embed from Getty Images

Almost exactly 12 months after trading him to Atlanta, the Philadelphia 76ers officially announced Wednesday the signing of the recently bought out Ersan Ilyasova. Originally acquired in a trade from Oklahoma City at the end October 2016, Ilyasova played 53 games with the Sixers last season, averaging 14.8 points and 5.9 rebounds, shooting 44.0% from the field and 35.9% from three. A career 36.6% shooter from behind the arc, Ilyasova again made 35.9% of his triples across 46 games with the Hawks this season. For this stint in Philadelphia, Ilyasova will wear No. 23, gradually easing fans into the idea of a Sixers forward wearing the number before the summer of LeBron.

To create a roster spot for Ilyasova, the Sixers released Trevor Booker, who they had just acquired from Brooklyn in December for Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and a second-round pick. Booker was a positive locker room presence and a high energy guy on both ends of the floor, but ultimately spacing was compromised with him at the power forward position. With the Sixers being in the unusual position where neither of their point guards is much of a threat from behind the arc (Ben Simmons has yet to make an NBA three and T.J. McConnell, while shooting 50.0%, attempts less than 1 game), the team needs as much spacing from other positions as possible.

There was reportedly a ton of interest in signing Booker upon release, and in less time than it takes for McConnell to get off a three-point shot, Trevor had latched on with another Eastern Conference playoff team.

We won’t have to wait too long to see Booker again, as the Pacers come into town for a game on March 13th. I wish him all the best and hope he one day achieves his goal of becoming a billionaire.

As a true stretch four, Ilyasova should do a better job providing that spacing in the frontcourt. It’s been oft-mentioned how well he and Joel Embiid played together last season, accounting for an 8.2 net rating in their 441 minutes together last season. Unlike Booker, who operated exclusively around the lane, Ilyasova can float in or out and allow Embiid to go wherever would provide the best matchup.

Although originally giving up a decent second round pick for him was unwise, it was good of management to recognize a sunk cost and release Booker to make room for Ilyasova, rather than a younger player on a cheap contract going forward, like Richaun Holmes or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Ever since they drafted Ben Simmons, the Sixers have focused on surrounding him with as much shooting as possible. The return of Ersanity to Philadelphia is the latest step to achieve that vision, and more evidence the team is doing everything it can to help the team in the short term, without too heavily jeopardizing the future.

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Dwyane Wade turns back time to stun Sixers

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Miami 102, Philadelphia 101 – Box Score

Somebody checks the calendar because I think we may have slipped through a time warp back to 2010. Recently re-acquired by Miami after Cleveland decided he was too washed up to help buddy LeBron James return to the Finals, Dwyane Wade scored 15 of his game-high 27 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning jumper with 6 seconds remaining.

https://twitter.com/NBATV/status/968685962590130178

Wade repeatedly hit contested jumpers, drove to the lane to sink wild floaters, and got Sixers defenders to bite on pump fakes and earn a trip to the free throw line. It all set the stage for an absolutely wild finish in a fiercely contested game between two teams jockeying for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.

After Wade tied the game with three free throws with 27 seconds left, he intentionally fouled Ben Simmons to send the rookie to the line. 2-4 from the line on the game thus far, Simmons again hit 1 of 2 free throws to put the Sixers up by a single point. Wade would hit his eventual game-winner, only for Simmons to draw four defenders in the lane and kick out to a wide-open J.J. Redick at the top of the key. Redick’s shot was off the mark as time expired.

So in the final 30 seconds, one team was intentionally sent to the free throw line and had a wide-open look from behind the arc, and the other took a highly contested long two, but won the game. It was a proud night for the old school, anti-analytics movement.

Prior to the crazy ending, the story of Tuesday’s game was all about how the Sixers fared with Joel Embiid on the bench. The All-Star center dropped 23 points, hitting 3 of 6 threes, and recorded 8 rebounds and 4 assists; he completely controlled the flow of the game, finishing a +12 in his 30 minutes. In the first half, Embiid took a seat with his team ahead, 33-20. Just three and a half minutes later, Brett Brown was forced to shuttle him back into the game, as the Sixers suddenly trailed, 36-35.

Philadelphia did a better job in the second half of coping with an Embiid-less existence. When the big man took a seat midway through the third quarter, Dario Saric scored 9 straight points for the Sixers, part of his 21-point night. Then, when Embiid picked up his 5th personal foul with 11 minutes left in the game, a crisis was averted as the Sixers actually went on an 8-0 run thanks to two Marco Belinelli three-pointers and a Richaun Holmes hook shot. The Sixers need to be able to hold down the fort when Embiid gets a rest; if they had done in the first half what they did in the second, Wade would have never had a chance for his late-game heroics.

During the game, we also received our unofficial to who the Sixers will cut to sign Ersan Ilyasova. While Trevor Booker did not take the court, Richaun Holmes played 17 quality minutes, logging time both as a power forward next to Embiid and a brief stint as the backup center. Holmes played extremely well, bringing his usual energy on both ends with 6 points, 7 rebounds, and a pair of blocks. It will be interesting to see whether he sticks in the rotation after Ilyasova’s arrival. Personally, I’d like to see Brown try going with a smaller lineup and cut down to Amir Johnson’s minutes, who has been awful lately.

 

With the loss, the Sixers missed another opportunity to move up in the standings, and remain in 7th place with the Heat now two games back. A tough test awaits Thursday night in Cleveland against the new-look Cavaliers and a revitalized LeBron James. Unlike his friend and fellow 2003 draft class member, Dwyane Wade, LeBron doesn’t need to step out of a time machine for one night to still dominate the action.

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