Thursday, December 16, 2010

Young Guns

With the Eagles in first place and the Phillies — OH MY GOD CLIFF LEE IS BACK! — dominating the local headlines, it's pretty easy to overlook the two Philadelphia teams that call the Wells Fargo Center home. But it'd be wise to start paying attention. Right now, both teams are streaking.

The Flyers beat the Canadiens 5-3 last night in Montreal just one night after defeating the Penguins. It was their fourth straight victory, and the Flyers have won 6 of their last seven games.

The Sixers easily defeated the Clippers 105-91 thanks to a huge third quarter, their third straight victory. Believe it or not, the 76ers are 5-2 in the month of December, winners of 5 of their last 6, 7 of their last 10, and have climbed out of the basement of the Eastern Conference. In fact, the Sixers currently reside in the 9 spot, just a half game behind the Milwaukee Bucks.

In both contests last night, it was the young guns leading the way. For the Flyers, 21-year-old James van Riemsdyk netted two goals including the game-winner, while the Sixers were led by 20-year-old point guard Jrue Holiday, who scored a game-high 24 points and added 6 rebounds and 5 assists with just one turnover.

First, I want to get this out of the way: Blake Griffin is an absolute stud. He's a monster on the boards, and his incredible athleticism allows him to score at all times. Last night, the Sixers actually did a very good job containing him, especially in the first half, yet at the midway point he still had 13 points and 12 rebounds, and by night's end, he had another absurd stat line of 20 points, 18 rebounds, 5 assists, a steal and a block. Whenever a shot came off the rim, you just had the feeling Griffin was getting the rebound. He completely controlled the glass.

John Wall is impressive. Really impressive. But the Rookie of the Year is Blake Griffin's to lose. He really is remarkable. It's amazing just how far modern medicine has come. Even after suffering a horrific injury to his knee, Griffin can still jump higher and quicker than just about anyone in the league. Microfracture surgery is no longer a dirty word in the NBA. Just ask Amare, who had himself quite an interesting finish last night.

Though Griffin still got his, I have to say how incredibly awesome Spencer Hawes played last night. Right from the get-go, he let the rookie know he wasn't going to be getting anything easy, blocking Griffin four times in two possessions.

Hawes finished the night with a double-double of his own and actually played Griffin to a draw, getting 16 and 12 to go along with 5 blocks. I have to admit, I was completely killing Hawes earlier in the year. He looked completely useless out there, immobile, unathletic, unimpressive. But it looks as though his early-season troubles stemmed from being out of shape due to injury. Because now that Hawes is healthy and back in game shape, he's been fantastic. Way better than I thought he'd be — quicker, more agile, better defender and an excellent shooter. Last night he was tremendous again, and Spencer Hawes may just turn out to be a damn good player yet. He's showing why he was one of the most coveted recruits coming out of high school.

As good as Hawes was, this was unquestionably the Jrue show. Holiday really is the most exciting player on this team to watch, and the more he plays, the better he is going to get. He's certainly making me forget all about Ty Lawson on the like. Last night, Jrue absolutely dominated Eric Bledsoe and Baron Davis. He was superior to both his counterparts in every conceivable way. He nailed three of six threes, hit half his shots, and played about as efficiently as he ever has.

In his young career, Jrue has struggled at times with turnovers. But not last night. He had only one, and incredibly, the Sixers only turned the ball over three times all game. That is completely unheard of in any level of basketball, and it was a huge reason the Sixers won going away —  3 turnovers to LA's 14.

Andre Iguodala also had a quietly efficient game, really going off in the fourth quarter. He had 20 points on a ridiculous 8-10 shooting night, hitting all three free throws he took and the only three-pointer he attempted. He also added four boards and five assists without turning the ball over. He was basically the Andre Iguodala fans want him to be: not jacking up ridiculous shots, penetrating, and throwing down monstrous dunks.

Believe it or not, the Sixers are actually fun to watch these days. Even though Evan Turner has done nothing but see his playing time steadily decrease, the other Sixers are giving fans more than enough reasons to watch. They're balanced, unselfish and energetic, all things that were completely lacking in the early going. Last night, five guys scored in double digits, and just about everyone contributed. It's hard to believe, but the 76ers aren't terrible. In fact, they're actually pretty fun to watch right now.

Though not as fun as the Flyers, which is no shock to anyone. Since the puck first dropped in the fall, the Flyers have been at or near the top of the standings, and they currently have the most points (47) and wins (21, tied with Pittsburgh) in the entire NHL. They remained in first last night, keeping pace with the Penguins, thanks largely to James van Riemsdyk and his linemates.

On the second night of a back-to-back, the Flyers looked incredibly gassed from the closing moments of the first period on. The Canadiens were much more fresh and it showed. Montreal outshot the Flyers in every period and finished with a 41-30 shot advantage.

The two "top" lines —  Richards-Giroux-Nodl and Hartnell-Briere-Leino —  were fairly quiet on the night. In fact, Richards had an absolutely horrendous game, giving the puck away routinely — one on a failed clear while down a man that turned into a goal — and looking sluggish all night. The Betts-Carcillo-Powe line did their usual good work providing energy, but even they got pinned deep at times. And to make matters worse, Chris Pronger left the game with a lower-body injury and did not return.

Thank goodness Peter Laviolette's newest line, Jeff Carter-JVR-Nikolay Zherdev, was able to make up for it.

That line scored the first four goals of the game, with each player lighting the lamp. Goals one and two game off turnovers by P.K. Subban, surely making Mike Richards smile. The first was a beautiful move by Carter using his speed to blow by the defense wide, then cutting to the middle to his backhand and easily beating Carey Price. He got a great pass by Matt Carle to spring him. The second was just James van Riemsdyk throwing the puck toward the net with Carter crashing. It went off the Montreal defender's leg and in.

Zherdev got his goal on another awesome move, and JVR had the game-winner on the power play — the second night the Flyers' power play looked like complete dog shit until they needed a goal in the 3rd period —  by banking it off Price and in. Claude had the other tally for the Flyers, as the Canadiens giftwrapped him a goal with another turnover. That resulted in Giroux all alone with Price, and he made Price look foolish — the norm with Giroux in one-on-one situations.

It was quite different story than earlier in the year when Price was impenetrable. The Flyers treated him like a sieve, getting 5 past him.

On the other end, Sergei Bobrovsky had one hiccup, the third goal for Montreal off the stick of Brian Gionta, but overall had a tremendous game. Bob had no shot on Subban's power-play goal or Plekanec's rebound goal, but he absolutely should have stopped Gionta's. At the time, it was huge, tying the game, but JVR bailed him out.

Though that was Bob's only black mark on the night. He stopped 38 of the 41 shots he faced, including this dandy:

That's another young gun making one hell of play.

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