2018 Oscars Picks

By Dan Urda (@Eagles_Dan88)

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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)

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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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PFB 019 – Reader Mailbag Podcast

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

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Ever since the Eagles won Super Bowl LII, it’s been a heck of a month for winning in Philadelphia sports. I do my first-ever mailbag podcast, answering questions sent in by you, the readers. The episode covers:

  • Who the Sixers should take with Lakers pick in the 2018 NBA draft;
  • My top 5 “untouchable” players in Philadelphia sports right now;
  • Thoughts on the upcoming Phillies season and when we can expect them to contend for an NL East title again;
  • The LeBron to Philly hype;
  • The bizarre Markelle Fultz situation;
  • What the Eagles should do in the 2018 draft and how to handle the Nick Foles situation;
  • And my limited knowledge on this year’s Oscars.

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Wizards snap Sixers winning streak at 7

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Washington 109, Philadelphia 94 – Box Score

It was a fun ride while it lasted, but all good things have to end sometime. That’s what Philadelphia fans are telling themselves this morning, after the Sixers had their winning streak snapped at 7 Sunday night in the nation’s capital. The Wizards led from the end of the first quarter on, as their advantage ballooned to as many as 23 points at one point in the third quarter. To the Sixers’ credit, they twice cut the deficit to 8 midway through the fourth quarter, but climbing out of that big a hole was too tall an order on the road on the second night of a back-to-back.

This game was the biggest example I noticed of an opponent really getting up to play the Sixers, a decided 180 from years past when teams would sleepwalk through games against them, until finally waking up in time to pull out the victory. Maybe it was the large contingent of Sixers fans in attendance in DC, chanting Trust the Process and E-A-G-L-E-S. Maybe it was the fact that the Sixers would have moved up to 5th in the East, dropping Washington down to 6th, with a victory. Or maybe they’re just tired of hearing about the Sixers as the next big thing in the NBA. Whatever the case, the Wizards were fired up, flexing for the crowd after every big play and leaping off the bench in celebration whenever a run prompted a Sixers timeout.

That energy fed into Washington’s shot-making, as whether open or contested, they drained every single jumper in sight. The Sixers got to the free throw line more, collected more offensive rebounds, and forced more turnovers, so it wasn’t a question of effort. But every time Philadelphia was making a push to get back into the game, Bradley Beal (24 points), Otto Porter (23 points), or Kelly Oubre, Jr. (19 points) would hit a huge shot to stem the tide. Washington shot 12-25 from behind the arc as a team, whereas the Sixers went a paltry 9-33, with not a single player making better than one-third of his attempts. Make or miss league, and all that.

Philadelphia’s stars played well enough. Ben Simmons recorded 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists. Joel Embiid put together a line of 25 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block. He also had the highlight of the night with this left-handed, no-look, over the shoulder hook shot. If he doesn’t even need to see the basket now to throw it in, I’m not sure what recourse opposing defenses will have.

Still, it wasn’t a nearly dominant enough performance when the majority of the supporting cast was MIA. The only other Sixer who showed much of a pulse was Richaun Holmes, who finally got off the bench in the third quarter and provided a huge spark for the team. Holmes’ numbers don’t pop off the box score (7 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 block), but he was a +12 in his 12 minutes of playing time. He noticeably bumped up the energy level for the team, the biggest catalyst in the Sixers trimming Washington’s lead back down to 8. It was great to see Holmes have another strong showing because of the other big piece of news Sunday.

Word on the street is that Ersan Ilyasova will be returning to the Sixers after being bought out of his contract with Atlanta. As I’m sure you recall, Ilyasova spent much of the 2016-17 season with Philadelphia, averaging 14.8 points and 5.9 rebounds, while shooting 35.9% from three. His skillset as a stretch four makes for a solid addition to the bench unit, especially getting him for nothing, although it’s funny the Sixers are collecting spare parts from the last place Hawks.

The million dollar question at the moment, though, is who will be the roster cut to bring in Ilyasova. Jerryd Bayless is owed $8.6M next season and I’m sure the Sixers would like to find a way to clear that salary off the cap this offseason. Guys like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and the recently-acquired Marco Belinelli are at a position of need for the current roster. That process of elimination basically leaves Richaun Holmes and Trevor Booker. Booker was a recent half year rental and would be the logical choice. He doesn’t help stretch the floor at all, something vital for a team with Ben Simmons as the point guard.

However, even though he’s young and has plenty of supporters among the fan base, the coaching staff seems to have soured on Richaun Holmes at times. He’s gathered plenty of DNP-CD’s this season, mainly due to concerns on the defensive end. His being the odd man out wouldn’t be completely out of left field. Booker is the smartest choice though; hopefully, that’s the news we’ll be hearing in the next day or two.

Meanwhile, although the Sixers could have moved up to 5th place in the East with the win, they’re still sitting in fine position. Currently, they reside in 7th place with a comfortable 4.5-game cushion between them and the 9th-place Pistons. The playoffs are more and more secure by the week. Don’t let one bad game cloud what’s a very bright big picture.

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Embiid leads Sixers over Orlando for 7th straight win

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 116, Orlando 105 – Box Score

An unusual 5:00 Saturday afternoon start time. A nationally televised Sunday night game in DC on deck. An Orlando Magic team that entered play having lost four straight and sitting next to last in the Eastern Conference. There were plenty of reasons the Sixers could have fallen victim to the classic “letdown game”, and when Orlando jumped out to an early 15-6 lead, it looked like that might be the case.

With Joel Embiid, however, there would be no letdown. Upon re-entering the contest with 2:39 remaining in the first quarter, the Sixers center immediately went on a personal 6-0 run. That short sequence was a prelude to the 27 minutes of destruction he would rain upon the Magic throughout the afternoon and early evening.

Embiid’s first two points of the game came bringing the ball up himself and pulling up from the foul line. After the jumper swished through, the camera cut to Brett Brown on the bench, a bemused smirk playing across his face. Technical post moves to finish around the basket, rip-throughs to earn easy trips to the free throw line, silky smooth face up jumpers, Embiid threw the whole arsenal at the Magic and they were helpless to stop him. A three-pointer from the top of the key four minutes into the second quarter gave Embiid 17 points and put the Sixers ahead by 15. The game was never truly in doubt the rest of the way.

The cherry on top came in the third quarter, though, featuring a sequence where JoJo drained a textbook Dirk Nowitzki one-legged fadeaway and then blocked a Shelvin Mack drive on the other end, punctuating it with the Dikemebe Mutombo finger wag.

That’s the greatest shooting big man ever and one of the best defensive big men of all time all in one tidy package. He goes by The Process for short.

The final line for Embiid: 28 points on 10-17 shooting, 14 rebounds, and most impressively, zero turnovers. A few of those buckets came off terrific feeds from J.J. Redick, who had 3 assists when he wasn’t knocking down every jumper in sight (16 points on 6-8 shooting). Ben Simmons had an efficient 17 points and 7 assists, keeping the momentum rolling for his Rookie of the Year frontrunner status.

Crucially, Embiid and every Sixer other than T.J. McConnell logged fewer than 30 minutes, meaning the roster will be as well-rested as possible heading into the second half of their back-to-back. The Sixers have won 7 straight games, and still haven’t lost in Philadelphia in 2018. They’re now just one game back of the 4th seed in the East, currently held by Washington, who the Sixers will face next. I think Joel Embiid and company might just be ready to keep climbing the conference ladder.

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Sixers steal a win in Chicago

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 116, Chicago 115 – Box Score

Right now, Chicago is in a situation very familiar to Sixers fans in recent years, openly tanking by announcing veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday wouldn’t be dressing for the game. (Just don’t come out and say you’re trying to lose. You don’t want that $600k fine like Mark Cuban.) Meanwhile, the Sixers have already crawled through that river of toxic sludge and are finally on the other side, winners of five straight heading into an All-Star weekend where they had three players starting in the Rising Stars game and an All-Star starter to boot.

So it was no surprise when Philadelphia jumped out to an early 25-7 lead. Playoff-bound team destroys team positioning for lottery balls; it’s a tale as old as time. To the Bulls’ credit though, that’s not at all how things played out. Chicago got insanely out from the outside, tying a franchise record with 18 made threes on 34 attempts. Zach LaVine hit 5 of 7 shots from downtown for 23 points and  David Nwaba knocked down all 3 of his three-pointers for a career-high 21 points.

However, the real show-stopper was Bobby Portis, who went 6-9 from behind the arc and 15-26 from the field overall for a career-high 38 points, a dozen more than his previous career high. Part of the reason you make a solid contributor like Lopez a healthy scratch is to give more playing time to a younger guy like Portis, and he certainly made that decision look wise Thursday night. Late in the fourth quarter, the Sixers were down 5 and it looked like they were destined for a bad loss to kick off the second half of the season.

Ah, but the reason the Sixers went through those years of tanking was to obtain elite talents through the draft, and those elite talents were ready to step up for them when it mattered most. Down 1 with five seconds remaining, Joel Embiid used all of his 7’6″ wingspan to snag an errant Bulls inbounds pass.

Embiid dished it off to Ben Simmons, who was fouled. Now, Simmons had only gone 4-9 from the free throw line up until that point. But with the game hanging in the balance, Ben received a friendly roll over the front iron on the first shot, and calmly swished the second for the go-ahead point. Great confidence builder for the young man to hit game-winning free throws after teams were playing Hack-a-Ben earlier this season.

There was still plenty of time left for Chicago and they couldn’t have asked for a better chance to win when 6’2″ T.J. McConnell was switched onto the 6’11” Portis under the basket. Portis was fed the ball, but despite scoring 38 points already, couldn’t make it 40 as he missed the open bunny deep in the painted area. The Bulls even got one more chance with the offensive rebound, but Denzel Valentine’s short jumper was also just off the mark. The Sixers somehow escaped with a victory in the reverse of the sort of heartbreaking loss we saw them lose far too many times in recent memory.

Beyond their last second heroics, Simmons and Embiid were doing their best to single-handedly (double-handedly?) drag the Sixers to victory all night. Simmons dropped a career-high 32 points on 13-18 shooting, adding 7 rebounds and 11 assists. Embiid tallied 30 points, hitting all 3 of his attempts from behind the arc, and contributing in all the other areas with 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 4 blocks. I’m not going to go in-depth on how amazing these guys are. You’ve seen them. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if Embiid received down-ballot MVP votes this season. Simmons is unlikely to miss another All-Star game for a long time.

The Sixers have now won six straight (still undefeated in the Eagles are Super Bowl Champions era) and are 2 games away from the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. With the lowly Magic on tap next, things should continue to trend in an upward direction, as long as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons keep playing like the stars they’ve already become.

Joel Embiid shines in All-Star debut

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Team LeBron 148, Team Steph 145 – Box Score

It was a busy weekend in Los Angeles for Sixers big man Joel Embiid. Friday night, he started in the Rising Stars game, where he, Ben Simmons, and Dario Saric helped Team World to a dominating victory. One night later, he participated in the skills competition, falling in the second round, but adding his own unique flavor to the proceedings by purposely throwing his passes away rather than trying to get them in the cylinder (to save time, you see). Sunday night was the main event, however, as Embiid was taking the court alongside the best players in the game of basketball as an All-Star starter.

To the surprise of no one, in Philadelphia at least, Embiid proved he belonged amongst the game’s elites. The Sixers center finished with 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks, also rekindling that rivalry with Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook along the way. It’s safe to say Sixers fans are going to have the Thunder’s visit to the Wells Fargo Center circled on their calendars next season. This sequence where Westbrook dared Embiid to shoot a three, Embiid drained it, and then blocked Westbrook at the basket on the other end was a key highlight of the game.

Most encouragingly, when it came to crunch time and the top players in the game ratcheted up the intensity to actually play two-way basketball, Joel Embiid was on the floor. Team Steph was even working the offense through him, and after Embiid scored on LeBron James down low, LeBron and Kevin Durant came with a double team the next possession down the court. I can’t imagine a higher sign of respect than that pair deciding they need to come at you with a double team. Embiid dribbled it off his own foot, and although no one else appeared to touch the ball, his team retained possession after a lengthy replay review (much to the consternation of LeBron).

On the defensive end, Team LeBron kept attacking Embiid with isolations, but the big man proved up to the challenge. He forced Kyrie Irving into a tough, contested three-pointer (which rimmed out), and then LeBron hit a deep three-pointer of his own. Then, Embiid’s finest work came matched up against Paul George with just inside of a minute remaining. George was able to beat Embiid off the dribble, but Joel recovered enough to block George’s shot off the backboard to keep the game tied.

Yet, in spite of that play, Team Steph coach Mike D’Antoni (who you may recall was on the Sixers coaching staff for a year, so he should know better), took Embiid out of the game for the next defensive possession. As you might expect, Team LeBron scored easily at the rim, and went on to secure the victory.

Nevertheless, crunch time in the All-Star game serves as an unofficial barometer of who the best ten players in the league are for a given season. Joel Embiid was not only out there, but he was a key figure in the proceedings. Not since Allen Iverson led the East to a massive comeback in the 2001 All-Star game have the Sixers felt this relevant on the national stage. By every indication, the team should remain in the spotlight for years to come.

Sixers complete 24-point comeback to defeat Miami

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 104, Miami 102 – Box Score

A 24-point second half lead somehow evaporated before our very eyes. It’s the type of situation Sixers fans sadly have seen far too often this season. Except, on this Valentine’s Day night, there was a plot twist the people of Philadelphia had to love. This time, it was the Sixers who trailed by 24 points early in the third quarter, only to roar all the way back and defeat the Heat by 2 points.

The comeback was made all the more improbable because it happened without Joel Embiid, who was a late scratch for this game with his sore right ankle. Without their All-Star big man, the Sixers looked completely out of sorts in the first half. Sloppy turnovers, multiple technical fouls borne out of frustration, and a stagnant offense that without Embiid to draw defense attention, had to resort to tough jumpers from J.J. Redick and Robert Covington which were off the mark. The referees were even seemingly against the Sixers, as Tony Brothers at one point waived off a Ben Simmons jumper for a 24-second violation when Ben clearly got the shot off in plenty of time (they later reversed it upon review).

Things flipped in a big way after halftime, thanks in large part to an uptick in energy from the big men off the bench. Richaun Holmes and Trevor Booker combined for 20 points and 18 rebounds, with 8 of those boards coming on the offensive end. It’s a credit to Holmes that he rarely plays anymore, but received last-minute word before the game that Embiid would be out and answered the bell with a spirited effort.

Getting in on the bench surge, recent signing Marco Bellinelli, who has been doing nothing but say “Trust the Process” and tweet out Rocky memes since arriving in Philadelphia, further endeared himself to the people here in his Sixers debut. Bellinelli caught fire for a stretch in the second half, hitting 3 three-pointers and scoring 13 of his 17 points after halftime.

Dario Saric also hit a rhythm scoring the basketball in the second half, dropping 14 of his team-high 19 points following the intermission. However, the Sixers wouldn’t have come close to erasing the huge deficit without Ben Simmons, who pulled a T.J. McConnell and recorded his 6th triple-double of the season with 18 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, and 4 steals.

There’s been a lot of “Donovan Mitchell should be Rookie of the Year” talk lately because the Jazz have won 11 straight and Mitchell has played a huge role in that turnaround for Utah. But it’s tough to watch what Simmons did Wednesday night and conclude he shouldn’t win the award. He was all over the place defensively, getting into passing lanes, helping clean the defensive glass, and tracking down loose balls.

Then, especially with Embiid out, Ben was the main catalyst for much of the Sixers offense, leading the team out in transition, spoon-feeding Richaun Holmes and Amir Johnson for some buckets underneath, and getting into the paint at will to score around the basket. I don’t know what the opposition is supposed to do when the opposing point guard is finishing something like this:

Just an outstanding effort from the home team to not give up on a night they could have easily packed it in without their best player. With the victory, the Sixers head into the All-Star break riding a 5-game winning streak. They currently sit in 7th place in the Eastern Conference, just 2 games out of 4th place. It’s been mentioned everywhere, but it bears repeating that Philadelphia’s schedule the rest of the way is Charmin-soft. Home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs is an entirely realistic goal. Let’s get it.

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McConnell records triple-double as Sixers win 4th straight

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 108, New York 92 – Box Score

As much fun as it should be to watch Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Dario Saric over All-Star weekend, the upcoming break couldn’t be coming at a worse time for the Sixers. Philadelphia is firing on all cylinders right now, taking care of the Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks Monday night to win their 4th straight game and 10th straight at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Knicks hung around for a while thanks to a lot of tough jumpers by Michael Beasley (22 points) and Courtney Lee (18 points), actually tying things up at 73 in the third quarter. There would be no second half collapse in this one, however, as the Sixers immediately answered with a 10-2 run to retake control, thanks in large part to the efforts of Robert Covington (13 points). In the span of four possessions, Covington hit a three, slammed home a dunk for an and-one, and as a grand finale, posterized Michael Beasley with a dunk so fierce that Joel Embiid picked up a technical for taunting on his teammate’s behalf.

Having reasserted themselves, the Sixers closed the door defensively, allowing just 13 New York points in the fourth quarter. 13 was a key number for the Sixers on the evening, as all five Philadelphia starters scored 13 or more points. Dario Saric (24 points), J.J. Redick (18 points) were lights-out from behind the arc, combining to make 7 of their 12 three-point attempts. Joel Embiid had 17 points in just 24 minutes. Thanks to the strong team effort, he was able to sit out the back half of the fourth quarter, a nice option to have considering how banged up he’s been lately.

Rounding out the starting five, Ben Simmons was an absolute force on both ends with 13 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks. It’s unbelievable how active Simmons is defensively, he has great innate instincts that didn’t show up in college. There had to have been something to the idea that he was bored at that level. Offensively, I don’t know how in the world he finds some of the angles he does to set up his teammates in tight spaces.

I saved the best for last, because the catalyst behind the Sixers putting this game away was T.J. McConnell, who grabbed his first career triple-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, and a whopping 6 steals. Facing a Knicks team he once nailed a game-winner against, the most spirited player on the team had the intensity meter cranked up to his jersey number 12. McConnell was a bothersome pest all game long, doing his usual routine of picking up full court and denying Knicks point guards (Emmanuel Mudiay especially) the ability to start the offense.

With the triple-double in sight, McConnell definitely looked for his shot on two straight possessions. After T.J. made a jumper on the second try to get to 10 points, he then grabbed his 10th rebound and the Wells Fargo Center erupted. The entire arena was chanting, “T.J., T.J. T.J,” and Joel Embiid and Covington doused McConnell with water during the postgame interview. Justin Anderson, who had rolled his ankle earlier in the game and headed to the locker room, was at the front of the tunnel in street clothes and an ankle wrap to congratulate him.

https://twitter.com/sixers/status/963240503230812160

The entire team was pumped for McConnell to reach that milestone. They are playing well, playing for each other, and going out there each night with the idea that they’re consistently the best team on the court. Honestly, the way things are rolling for them right now, there isn’t a team in the league they couldn’t go toe to toe with.

The Sixers have one more game Wednesday night against Miami before the All-Star break. With a win in that one, they would have sole possession of 7th place in the East.

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