Friday, February 24, 2012

It's Friday, Time to Dance

The NBA All-Star Weekend is upon us, so it only makes sense to take in New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov rapping on some strange Russian show.

Clearly with Jay-Z on board, the Nets dominate the NBA owners rap game.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Crazy Savon Goodman Dunk, McDonald's All-American Honor for Amile Jefferson

Great video from SLAM of Constitution senior Savon Goodman throwing down an insane dunk while jumper over a defender in a 41-point, 17-rebound playoff effort.

In other Philadelphia high school ball news, Friends' Central's Amile Jefferson was named to the McDonald's All-American Game's East squad.

Monday, February 20, 2012

What's Eating Ilya Bryzgalov?

One step forward, two steps back. That's been Ilya Bryzgalov's inaugural year of his 9-year, $51 million contract he signed with the Flyers.

He began his Philadelphia career with a solid performance in a victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins followed by a shutout in his second start. He continued for a short while playing some pretty good hockey.

Then the first slide came. As a seemingly abnormal amount of deflections and bad bounces ravaged the Flyers and Bryzgalov, the $51 million man's confidence seemed to deteriorate with each unlucky goal. In the meantime, second-year netminder Sergei Bobrovsky played stellar hockey, earning more starts as Bryzgalov began to struggle.

However, Bryzgalov turned that around, going on a long winning streak and playing pretty good hockey during the stretch. A definite step forward. Sadly, it wouldn't last, as Bryz began to let more and more pucks slide by him as the Flyers' defense fell apart in front of him. It got so bad that Bryzgalov, the man HBO quite literally made a star during its 24/7 series leading up to the Winter Classic, was benched in favor of the hot Bobrovsky. Bryz wasn't happy, his confidence was at an all-time low, and even he couldn't argue that the Flyers were in a better position with him on the bench than on the ice. Two steps back, if not more.

The up and down play continued into the all-star break, and it spread to Bobrovsky as well. The Flyers, built to be one of the best defensive teams in the league thanks to a deep, talented defense corps, never recovered from the loss of captain Chris Pronger. Relying on a pair of rookies on defense and extended minutes for the rest of the blue liners, the Flyers went from a stout defensive team to a horrible one. Breakdowns became normal, turnovers frequent and the easy goals that resulted only furthered the slide of the goalies. The frustration boiled for everyone, but no one reached a boiling point faster than Bryzgalov, who lashed out at reporters in the locker room for worrying so much about him.

The good news was Bryzgalov began to show signs of breaking out of his funk after the all-star game. He got some wins under his belt, slowly began to creep his save percentage up and just looked more locked in. One step forward. Then, in a tough loss to the Rangers Bryzgalov played horribly, letting in some of the worst goals I've ever seen. Two steps back.

No matter what he seems to do, Bryzgalov can't get his game on track. A bout with the flu gave him a few games' rest, and when he came back, he struggled at the start as the Flyers fell behind 2-0 to the Sabres. Then he righted himself, played really well, and the Flyers scored 7 unanswered goals to win. Two games later, Bryzgalov looked like anything but a premier netminder in a 6-4 loss to the Penguins, surrendering three goals on 13 shots and absolutely disgusting Chris Therien on the radio broadcast.

So why is Bryzgalov playing so poorly? Why is he lashing out at the media, degrading himself, wondering why people care so much? Why isn't he playing the way the Flyers expected? Why can't Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese, who did such tremendous work with much lesser talents like Martin Biron, Antero Niittymaki, Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton, get Bryz straightened out? What's eating Ilya Bryzgalov?

This might be the last thing Flyers fans want to hear, but maybe Bryzgalov just doesn't have it in him to perform in a pressure situation, much like so many players have failed under the bright lights of New York. Let's face it, Bryzgalov was under no pressure whatsoever during his days in Phoenix. The Coyotes were afterthoughts, a franchise with very little expectations and perhaps an even smaller fan base. No one cared if he made 50 saves or 5, and more often than not, Bryzgalov was the reason the Coyotes won, not the guy expected to carry them to the promised land.

Philadelphia is the complete opposite. Flyers fans are rabid and passionate. The owner has one goal and one goal only every year, to win the Stanley Cup. The coach is an intense, demanding guy, the type of coach who won't' put up with anything less than the best from his team, for better or worse. And the team is littered with grizzled playoff veterans for whom nothing short of hoisting the Cup constitutes success, sprinkled in with talented youngsters who are either too naive or too poised to let the expectations weigh on them.

For the longest time, the one missing piece has been the man in net. It's a search that has been going on for more than 25 years. Everyone knew this franchise's achilles heel the past two and half decades, and everyone knew that they have never quite addressed it. That is, until this landmark offseason, when the Flyers traded away their captain and leading goal scorer in large part to bring in Bryzgalov, the man who was considered the missing piece to put the Flyers over the top.

Suddenly, Bryzgalov went from a near zero-pressure in Phoenix, in which thrived, to "goalie hell," where he was the guy under the microscope from day 1, the man expected to lead the Flyers to the Cup, the guy who they could finally count on to anchor the goaltender position. Maybe Bryzgalov underestimated how much hockey means here, how much the fans care, how much the franchise expects from him and the team. Maybe Paul Holmgren and Ed Snider underestimated how different it would be for a known eccentric here in Philadelphia, with all the attention and pressure and expectations. Maybe Ilya Bryzgalov wasn't meant to be what we all want and hoped and expected him to be.

Only time will tell if he can turn it around, can make the adjustments, can learn to enjoy himself in a city that expects its athletes, especially the well-paid ones, to perform. And time is the one thing he has, given there are 8 more years left on his contract after this one.

Hopefully the recent trades for big defensemen Nicklas Grossman and Pavel Kubina will solidify the defense in front of Bryzgalov and help settle things down. Maybe that will give him more confidence in his teammates and himself, and we'll see the player who put up excellent numbers in Phoenix. Hopefully Bryz will take a few steps forward and no more steps back. Because if the Flyers really hope to be the team they expect to be, they'll need him, whether he likes it or not.

Friday, February 17, 2012

It's Friday, Time to Dance

The 500th episode of The Simpsons is airing on Sunday, so it only makes sense to share some Simpsons songs.

Also, two Pittsburgh teams are in town tomorrow, with the Flyers hosting their intrastate rival the Penguins and Temple hosting Duquesne, so might as well listen to that annoying Wiz Khalifa song to get the animosity going.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Wilt Chamberlain Owned Valentine's Day

We all know Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have bed more than 20,000 women in his lifetime, so clearly he knew how to take care of the ladies. But that's not the only reason to honor him on Valentine's Day. Turns out, Wilt surpassed Bob Pettit to become the NBA's all-time leading scoring on Valentine's Day in 1966, until Kareem surpassed him in 1984.

Clearly, there's no better time to honor the greatest basketball player to ever come out of Philadelphia.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Sixers Are Tough, Flyers Are Soft and Temple Is Good

My weekend was about as disjointed as Philadelphia sports were this weekend. On one hand, I got to spend time with some longtime friends and act like we did when we were teenagers, and I got to take in my first Flyers game in a month or so. Good things, just like Temple dismantling Xavier and the Sixers destroying the lowly Cavaliers. On the other hand, I was I completely spent on Saturday and had to go into the office on Sunday. Not so good things, like the Flyers playing embarrassingly horrid defense while losing on back-to-back days, and the Sixers losing in the final seconds thanks to a miraculous shot by Chris Paul and a confusing final possession of their own.

Truth be told, the unevenness started earlier and week and simply continued right on through the weekend. You see, earlier in the week, my friends tried to get a decent chunk of tickets for the Clippers game. By the time everything got coordinated with who was in and who was out, the tickets that were available had vanished, meaning no Clippers-Sixers game for us. So instead, four of us all met up at a bar/restaurant where two of our others friends work to take in the game and act like we were in high school or college again.

We ate, drank, made fun of each other just like old times, all while watching the exciting Sixers-Clippers game. For a game that ended with just 155 total points, it was an exciting one. The Sixers were taking care of the ball and playing great defense … and so were the Clippers. It was like watching two teams mirror each other, though in the end, even in the face of great defense, the team with the best player on the court found a way to win, thanks to a remarkable shot by Chris Paul followed by an absolutely disgusting final play drawn up by Doug Collins that stood no chance of working.

It would have been nice for the Sixers to make some more shots, and pretty much anything other than the final look they got would have preferable, but even in defeat it was another instance of the Sixers showing they can hang with anyone. It took a truly great shot by Chris Paul to beat them, helped out by Reggie Evans coming in and rebounding everything in sight, something Sixers fans became accustomed to during Reggie's days in Philadelphia.

That ending put a sour taste on otherwise fun night. And that was only the beginning.

About 10 minutes after I woke up late Saturday morning, I got a call from my roommate asking me if I wanted two tickets to the Flyers-Rangers game. The only caveat was I had to drive from my home in Philadelphia all the way up to Hatboro to get them. It being quarter after 11 already, I didn't even hesitate, said yes, threw on some clothes and got in my car.

As I was driving to the pickup destination, I called my cousin to see what he was up to. He said he had a few things to do before I stopped him and asked if there was anything he absolutely had to do right away today, then followed up by asking if he wanted to go to the game. He said yes, and I told him to get his ass down to the Wells Fargo Center and I'd meet him there.

I made my pickup, sped back down 95 and met up with my cousin a good 20 minutes before the puck dropped, taking our seats in section 110, row 16.

Of course, the National Anthem was pretty much the best part of the game, thanks in part to some head-scratching officiating but mostly due to horrible discipline and laughable coverage by the Flyers in front of their own net, two common themes for the team lately.

The scoring got started after an absolutely bizarre set of circumstances. After a whistle, Stu Bickel and Tom Sestito got into a little bit. Bickel clearly was the one who engaged Sestito, even dropping his gloves first, and as the linesmen tried to break them up, the two of them were throwing punches over the top, nearly hitting the officials themselves. When it all shook out, somehow Sestito got two extra minutes, neither one got a fighting major, and the Rangers wound up with a power play, while both Sestito and Bickel picked up 10-minute game misconducts. All this despite the fact that Bickel started the whole thing.

It didn't make any sense. I saw it happen live. I watched the replay. And in no instance did I see any reason whatsoever why Sestito picked up an extra two minutes to give the Rangers the man advantage. And believe me, I'm always looking for reasons to blame Sestito for anything, because he is absolutely horrible at hockey. I honestly cannot understand why Peter Laviolette keeps this joker on his roster, even with James van Riemsdyk hurt. He has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and there's no one I hate seeing on the ice more for the Flyers than Sestito.

But honestly, Sestito didn't do anything to deserve the extra two, so naturally the Rangers scored on the ensuing power play on a goal from Ryan Callahan. It may have been one Sergei Bobrovsky could have stopped, but it didn't help that the referees gift-wrapped the Rangers a power play. Danny Briere clearly felt the same way, because he was summarily issued a 10-minute game misconduct himself following the goal. Briere was serving the penalty for Sestito, and when he left the box he rightfully gave it to the officials. Then he was sent off the ice for a while to contemplate just how horrible that call was.

From there, the Flyers picked it up after getting outworked early by the Rangers. Wayne Simmonds remained red hot, scoring an absolutely beautiful deflection goal past Henrik Lundqvist to tie it up. In my humble opinion, Simmonds and Brayden Schenn have been the best two Flyers for the past couple of weeks now, and Saturday was no different.

Of course, a few minutes after a pretty bad non-call on the Rangers, Andrej Meszaros hooked a Ranger to give New York another power play. On the ensuing power play, Matt Read went to the wrong man on a rush, leaving Marian Gaborik of all people all alone in front of the net, yet another dreadful coverage breakdown. Gaborik proceeded to execute an unstoppable deflection by Bobrovsky to give the Rangers the lead yet again.

It's something that has become commonplace for the Flyers of late — surrendering a goal shortly after they score one. It's made things nearly impossible for the Flyers, and it reared its ugly head all weekend long.

However, in the second period, the Flyers really did take it to the Rangers. They outshot them 18-7, they hit any Ranger that moved, and they controlled play. Yet the only time they could beat the great Hernik Lundqvist was when Simmonds sprung Claude Giroux on a breakaway. And even then, it was no slam dunk. Claude made an absolutely insane series of dekes, the type of moves that make most goaltenders look silly. Yet as Claude pulled the puck back to his forehand to slide it by the out-of-position goalie, Lundqvist reached back and made the initial stop before Claude rammed it home on the second effort.

I know that Claude scored anyway, but that first stop by Lundqvist was absolutely insane. I honestly don't think there's another goaltender alive who could have done what Lundqvist did there. Thankfully Claude stayed with it and tied the game, but before you knew it, there the Rangers were on yet another power play, reclaiming the lead on a slam-dunk goal by Callahan, his second. The guy was all alone, and Bob never stood a shot. Just like that, the ice cold New York power play tallied three times on the man advantage thanks to horrific breakdowns by the Flyers in front of the net, and the Rangers went to the third with the lead.

From there, things only got worse. Bob got left out to dry yet again on a goal by Artem Anisimov, and Ryan Callahan completed the hat trick to propel the Rangers past the Flyers for the fifth time in as many meetings this season. To add insult to injury, the referees again somehow managed to give a Flyer two extra minutes after a fight/scrum despite no evidence to support it. This time it was Zac Rinaldo, who picked up an extra 2 minutes for roughing after Brandon Dubinsky tripped him and the two fought. If you can explain to me how the hell the Flyers go down a man twice after pretty even scrums in one game, I'd love to hear it. Horrible officiating.

But the officiating had little to do with the Flyers' incredibly bad breakdowns in front of their own net, terrible turnovers and penchant for giving goals right back. That's all on them. Right now, they are incredibly soft in their own end. Matt Carle has developed a case of the yips and won't hit anyone. Not a single defenseman, from Kimmo to Coburn to Meszaros to Gustafsson to Bourdon, will even attempt to move a guy from the crease area or around it. Hell, they won't even touch a guy near there, oftentimes failing to even mark him. It's pathetic. And sad. Not one of them has even a little bit of Chris Pronger's nastiness in them, and it shows, to the detriment of the team.

The game just reinforced the difference between the two teams. The Rangers are everything the Flyers want to be but aren't because of their lack of discipline and soft nature right now. The Rangers play north-south hockey, get the puck deep, bang, forecheck hard and control the puck. They play sound defensive hockey, clog the lanes in the neutral zone and account for their man in the defensive zone. They block a ton of shots, and they have what the Flyers never have, a truly elite netminder who never is the reason his team loses. New York just doesn't beat itself, and that's why the Rangers have the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Conversely, the Flyers are a mentally soft team that takes way too many penalties, too often tries to make the fancy pass instead of the easy play and cannot do seemingly anything right in their own zone these days. The power play is disjointed. The penalty kill is struggling and overworked. And when they need a big save, they don't get it. Right now, they're simply not a good enough hockey team to compete for the Stanley Cup, whereas the Rangers are. They're just too soft and too undisciplined.

Basically, the complete opposite of the Sixers and the Temple Owls. Because after a terrible showing yet again against the Rangers, I was at least treated to two dominant victories by the Sixers and Owls.

In another total team effort, the Sixers annihilated the Cavaliers in Cleveland 99-84. Six players scored in double digits in a nice rebound win, and the Sixers continued to manhandle the bad teams they face. They still may have some work to do to beat the likes of Miami, but the Sixers are clearly moving the right direction by laying waste to the teams they're supposed to beat.

Even more encouraging, however, was Temple's emphatic 85-72 win over Xavier at the Liacouras Center late Saturday night.

We all know that Xavier has struggled ever since the ugly brawl against Cincinnati. But the Musketeers are still the team with the most talent in the Atlantic 10, a team that was considered one of the best in country earlier this season. So any victory is impressive against Xavier, especially one as dominant as Temple's Saturday night.

Going against what was considered perhaps the best backcourt in the nation heading into the season, it was Temple's Ramone Moore and Khaliff Wyatt who one-upped the highly regarded Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. Moore, the A-10's leading scorer, was the most dynamic player on the court, scoring a game-high 30 points on 9-16 from the field and 5-8 from three, while Wyatt, who is now second in the A-10 in scoring, put up 18. And while Holloway and Lyons combined for 38 points themselves, they shot a combined 11-30 from the field and could rarely find an easy basket.

On the inside, Michael Eric completely dominated Kenny Frease. Eric had 11 points, 16 rebounds and 1 emphatic block, while Frease was limited to 18 ineffective minutes, posting just 2 points and 1 rebound. Now the Owls have a firm grasp on the top spot in the very good A-10, and with Eric solidifying them inside, the Owls are going to be extremely tough come tournament time. At 19-5, leading the A-10 and having a huge victory over Duke, the Owls are pretty much a lock for the tourney, continuing Fran Dunphy's success since taking over for the legendary John Chaney.

To me, it's really a shame that Scootie Randall has been out all season with an injured knee. Given that he hasn't played all year and the rumors continue to ramp up that he's redshirting, it's a pretty safe bet to assume he won't be returning at all. I mean, we are in the middle of February. And that's a shame, because with a healthy Randall, this could be a team with the potential to be a darkhorse Final Four team. I know that may sound homerish, but Temple is a veteran team that doesn't turn the ball over, plays great defense and never gets rattled. The trio of Juan Fernandez, Ramone Moore and Khaliff Wyatt is a veteran group of ball-handlers and scorers. Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson is the guy who does all the little things, crashing the offensive boards, playing tough d and battling guys bigger than him. Michael Eric is a vastly improved offensive player who gives them a huge presence inside at both ends of the court with his return. Anthony Lee showed promise with Eric out and has continued to play well. And guys like Aaron Brown and even T.J. DeLeo have given Temple good minutes all season long. The only thing they're missing is a lockdown perimeter defender, and Scootie was that — not to mention a versatile offensive player that would give Temple yet another weapon.

Sadly, it looks like Scootie won't get that chance, and that's a shame. But even without him, this Temple team is good. They have a few bad losses, but they've more than made up for that with some very big wins and by taking control of the A-10.

And thank god for the Owls and Sixers on Saturday night, because after I got some work done at the office yesterday, I headed home to watch the Flyers take on the Red Wings.

I shouldn't have bothered. Because while it was an exciting game that featured two more goals by Brayden Schenn — did I mention that I thought he and Simmonds have been the best Flyers of late? — and a pretty exciting back-and-forth game, it ultimately ended much like the game on Saturday.

The Flyers lost 4-3, once again leaving Red Wings wide open in front of the net, once again getting burned by penalties and once again failing to build any momentum by giving goals right back after scoring one of their own. Like I said, this team just isn't good enough right now to compete for a Cup.

The good news is that talent-wise, they are right there with the likes of Detroit and New York. It showed by the way they've been in games against those teams. But they still make too many mistakes, have too many breakdowns, take too many penalties, where the better teams play smarter. They aren't physical enough in their own end, and they seem to lacking a lot of the mental toughness that was there as players were dropping like flies earlier in the year.

There's still time to turn it around, but right now the Flyers are soft. Thank goodness that's not the case with the Sixers and the Temple Owls.

Friday, February 10, 2012

It's Friday, Time to Dance

I'm pretty sure I never have been and never will be as cool as this kid doing the dougie at the Sixers game Monday night, clearly enjoying the 95-90 victory over the Lakers.

Also, congrats to Andre Iguodala on his first all-star selection. He earned it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Anatomy of a Meltdown: Poor Coaching, Poor Foul Shooting, Poor Decision-Making

With 2:38 remaining in the first of two meetings between Duke and North Carolina, the Tar Heels held a 10-point lead on their home court and looked to have the game in hand. After a slow start, they stormed back to take the lead before halftime and led for every single moment of the second half … until this happened:

So how exactly did this happen? A combination of poor coaching, poor foul shooting and poor decision-making on the part of Roy Williams and his squad. Just take a look at the key plays in the final 2 minutes and 38 seconds of the game. Following a jumper by Harrison Barnes to give the Heels an 82-72 lead, Williams took a timeout to set up his defense, and at the same time, he took out his team's second-leading rebounder, Tyler Zeller, who had four fouls. Williams had to make the choice between risking Zeller picking up a 5th foul on defense and being lost for the final moments or risk taking out one of his best rebounders when possessions were at a premium. He chose to sit Zeller so he'd have his big man on offense.

It's definitely hard to argue with that line of thinking, but it didn't help that following a block by John Henson on a Ryan Kelly three, Duke nabbed the ball and then got a surprising three by Tyler Thornton to make it an 82-75 game.

Roy then used another timeout, bringing Zeller back and presumably setting up a play that would both bleed the clock a bit and get a good shot. Instead, the normally sure-handed Kendall Marshall, who had only turned the ball over twice all game up until that point, turned it over immediately. That's when Duke took advantage of a break the way North Carolina seemingly couldn't all game long, even as they were leading by double digits for most of the second half.

Thornton threw a skip pass to Seth Curry, who blatantly walked but was not called for it and then proceeded to drain a huge three, 82-78, 1:48 remaining.

To compound that, Harrison Barnes, who had exploded in the second half to help UNC surge to a double-digit lead, made a boneheaded decision, trying to drive through the teeth of the Duke defense, essentially going it alone way too early in the shot clock, and turning it over with a deadly charge. I didn't want to even talk because you could see what was coming. North Carolina was choking after controlling things for more than half the game, and Duke was feeding off it.

Ryan Kelly then followed his own miss, hitting a jumper to suddenly cut a lead that was once as big as 13 points down to 2, 1:10 remaining.

And the meltdown just continued. Zeller, who was a man's man in the first half turned forgotten man in the second half — something of a regular occurrence for UNC — was fouled. The normally excellent free-throw shooter missed the first, ensuring the game remained a one-possession contest. After making the second, the Heels held a three-point advantage with 44 seconds remaining.

Duke used its remaining timeout and executed, with Kelly hitting yet another big shot, making it 83-82 with 14 seconds remaining. Once again, Zeller was fouled, and once again, he went just one of two from the line, now not only leaving the door open yet again for Duke, but giving them a huge opportunity given the way Duke was shooting the ball from deep.

And finally, to cap things off, Reggie Bullock, who had been making Austin Rivers work hard for every incredible bucket he hit, switched off on a screen, handing Rivers over to Zeller. Zeller never stood a chance, and even though he did all he could, putting his hand in Rivers' face, Doc's son drilled the game-winning three to cap off his dominant, impressive night, scoring a game-high 29 points and only turning the ball over three times, to give Duke the stunning 85-84 win.

It was a meltdown of epic proportions: missed free throws, rushed shots, horrid turnovers and a coach just sitting there on the sidelines watching it all unfold.

Truth of the matter is, the Tar Heels could have put this game completely away earlier in the half, as both Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale mentioned. Out of the break, Barnes and Marshall took over and helped UNC build a 13-point lead. But as Barnes began to cool a bit and uncharacteristically struggled from the foul line — missing four freebies on the night — and Marshall's driving lanes weren't quite as gaping as before, the Heels failed to get it to Zeller. It's something that's driven me crazy for years now with Roy. As things start to go south, most coaches will call a timeout or at least drive the point home that things have to run through the best, most reliable player on the team. For Carolina, that is Zeller, no matter how good Harrison Barnes is. When Zeller is getting the touches and making things happen, UNC is nearly unbeatable. And while he did have 23 and 11, Zeller was ignored for much of the second half. By the time Carolina remembered the big guy was on the floor, the game was close, Zeller was cold and he was not able to convert critical free throws in the waning seconds.

Conversely, Mike Krzyzewski got the ball in his best player's hands time and time again. Austin Rivers was simply remarkable last night, so Coach K kept making sure Rivers got his looks. He put the ball in his best player's hands and lived and died with the results. That's what you expect a coach to do. Krzyzewski did, and he stole a victory. Williams didn't, and he gave away what looked like a sure win.

That's the most maddening part. This was an ending that never should have been allowed to happen. It's an embarrassment. And surely, it is on guys like Zeller, Barns and Marshall for coming up small in the final three minutes, missing free throws and turning the ball over at the most inopportune times, but it's also on the coach who failed to rein in his players and make sure they put a very good Duke team away.

Don't get me wrong, Roy is a great coach. He was incredibly successful at Kansas, and since he's returned to his alma mater, he's won two national championships and reestablished the Tar Heels as the cream of the crop along with Duke in the ACC. But he is no Mike Krzyzewski. He showed that last night. And Duke showed its mental make-up, led by a fearless freshman who was cherishing the moment.

Hats off to Austin Rivers for his brilliant performance and stunning buzzer-beater. But it should have never come to that had it not been for some poor coaching, poor foul shooting and poor decision-making by the Tar Heels.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Start the #FreeBob Movement: Ilya Bryzgalov Sucks Even When He Plays Well

A couple of weeks ago, I acknowledged that high-priced free-agent signing Ilya Bryzgalov stinks this season, but admitted that I still kind of liked him. Those sentiments, however, went right the hell out out the window on Sunday, as Bryzgalov let in two absolutely horrendous, back-breaking goals in a 5-2 loss to the conference-leading Rangers.

The first was an unfathomable goal by Marian Gaborik with 5 seconds remaining in the 2nd period. Gaborik was tightly marked by Andrej Meszaros coming off the boards behind the net, so he just sort of flicked a backhand toward the net. It was not a hard or particularly good shot, and Bryzgalov was pretty much in position. Yet he let it somehow slip by him to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead heading into the third period, an absolute killer — falling behind to a great defensive team with the best goaltender in the NHL.

I don't care if you're making $51 million or $50, if you're a goalie, you have to make that save. Have to. Especially when you're playing the team ahead of you in the standings, a team that just so happens to be nearly impossible to beat in comeback fashion.

Still, the Flyers didn't let that horrendous goal in the waning seconds of the period derail them. They came out aggressive to start the third and tied it up on Wayne Simmonds second goal of the game just 57 seconds in. That's when Bryzgalov went from bad to worse.

Just when you thought he couldn't have possibly done anything more crippling than letting up a soft goal with just 5 seconds remaining in a period, he goes and gives up just as soft of a goal just 36 seconds after his teammates tied it to fall behind yet again.

That was the nail in Philadelphia's coffin. Two god-awful goals against one of the best defensive hockey teams in the league with a truly elite goaltender. It didn't help that Matt Carle had a horrendous turnover that led to a fourth goal against Bryz, but the play of his teammates only explains so much. This loss was as much on Bryz as it was anyone else.

Sure, the Flyers got outmanned and outplayed in the first period, but after they recovered, Bryz let them down. It's something that's become commonplace for this team all season long.

I tried my best to remain patient and give Bryzgalov the benefit of the doubt. I mean, he does get left hung out to dry by his defensemen more than he should, especially with names like Timonen, Meszaros, Coburn and Carle in front of him, and he has had an abnormal amount of deflections go by him, but at some point those become nothing more than excuses. At the end of the day, Bryz's job is to stop the puck, and this season he simply hasn't been doing that enough. Frankly, I'm tired of it, and everyone should be. This isn't what the Flyers or anyone else expected when they shelled out 9 years and $51 million, but that's what they've gotten — a high-priced bum.

Now, I will concede that Bryz played well last night against the Islanders. I mean, how can you even say otherwise? He had a 65-minute shutout. Problem was, his counterpart made 40-plus saves to match him, bringing the game to the dreaded shootout. And if you think Bryzgalov has struggled during games, I'm not even sure what you can call his play in shootouts.

Honestly, he's the worst goaltender I've ever seen in the shootout format. Not only does he get beat, he gets beat badly — to the point where you don't think he even stands a chance to stop the puck. Last night, he didn't, getting completely undressed by the two shooters he faced while Evgeni Nabakov was flawless. It's embarrassing watching a so-called "elite goalie," at least before this season, look so laughably bad. Watching him get schooled yet again in the shootout led me to make the comment, "Even when Bryz plays awesome, he still sucks." That's how I feel about the guy right now.

And while the shootout is meaningless come playoff time, contrary to what Matt P. over at The700Level, who I respect greatly, says shootouts do still matter, especially in a tight Eastern Conference race in which every point matters. Bryz looks so lost in net during the shootout that, yes, I do think a completely cold Sergei Bobrovsky is a far superior option than even a Ilya Bryzgalov who just pitched a shutout for 65 minutes. That's how horrendous he is at the skills competition.

It isn't early in the season anymore. The Flyers already have 53 games under their belt, just 29 more to go. Through the first 53, Sergei Bobrovsky has far outplayed Bryzgalov, and it's starting to reach the point where Bryz may be forcing Peter Laviolette's hand. In my estimation, Bryzgalov only has another week or two to round into form, otherwise it's officially time to free Bob. Hell, that time may have already come. Given Bryzgalov's play this year, there's little reason to believe he'll turn it around anytime soon.

There's still time for him to right himself, and I hope he does. But it's quickly running out. And in my opinion, the Flyers shouldn't wait any longer. Bryzgalov has been unfortunate at best, a bust at worst, and all the while, Sergei Bobrovsky has been waiting in the wings and playing at the level we all thought Bryzgalov would when he put on the Orange and Black.


The Night Shift Puts in Work for the Sixers

Two nights ago, the Sixers did something that is damn near impossible to do: They won a game in which they were outrebounded by an astounding 55-30 margin. And they did so with Kobe Bryant putting forth an other-worldly scoring display in the first half, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol each notching double-doubles and tearing the Sixers apart inside, and the Lakers pulling down an absurd 21 offensive rebounds.

Yet when the final buzzer sounded, it read 76ers 95, Lakers 90, improving Philadelphia to 18-7 on the season to remain as a top 3 seed in the East. How did they manage to pull out a victory when they were outrebounded so badly and the three-headed monster of Kobe, Bynum and Gasol managed to put up a combined 64 points? Because their bench completely dominated, outscoring their L.A. counterparts 49-16. Hell, Lou Williams, who out-clutched Kobe in the fourth quarter and propelled the Sixers to victory with his team-high 24 points, had 8 more himself than the entire Lakers' bench.

Of course, this is nothing new for the Sixers. The second-unit, affectionately known as the "Night Shift," has been a driving force behind Philadelphia's remarkable success so far this season. Sixth man Lou Williams leads the Sixers in scoring at 15.5 per game, and he was the man in the fourth quarter Monday night. Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner are players who would be starting on a whole hell of a lot of NBA teams, and they both are integral parts of this team's makeup. And rookie big men Nik Vucevic and Lavoy Allen have surprised everyone with their play, proving they belong and sliding seamlessly into any role coach Doug Collins asked of them, whether it be spot starter, second-unit duty or even some time on the bench.

Combined, this quintet, not to mention the steady professionalism and quality minutes of veteran Tony Battie, has given the Sixers one of, if not the, best benches in the entire NBA. As it stands, only the Mavericks and Nuggets get more points from their backups than the Sixers, and only by the slimmest of margins. And when you factor in the all-around versatility of the Night Shift, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better second unit in the league.

Thanks to the play of guys like Williams, Young, Turner and the rookie bigs, it allows the starters to focus on a true team concept. Having Lou, Thad and Evan come in to carry the offense allowed Andre to completely shut down Kobe in the second half after it looked like Bryant might go for 50 during his 24-point first half. Having Lou and Turner as backup ball handlers allows Jrue Holiday to remain fresh and focus more on his defense. And having Vucevic and Allen playing at a high level lets players like Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand either get longer breathers or get healthy as they mend from injury.

The Night Shift has been fantastic all season long, and these high-quality subs are a major reason that the Sixers are so fun to watch and quickly winning this city over. They displayed just how potent they can be on Monday night, and if you've been paying attention, they've been doing it all season long.

Duke vs. North Carolina in the NBA: Perception vs. Reality

Duke vs. North Carolina in the NBA: Perception vs. Reality

Friday, February 3, 2012

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Thanks to the good folks over at The700Level, I now know that some rapper named Don Trip has a song called "Allen Iverson," about none other than, you guessed it, Allen Iverson. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Andre Iguodala and the Philadelphia 76ers Are for Real

Yesterday, I talked about how Andre Iguodala is the most unappreciated "best player on his team" in the NBA. That was before I headed down to the Wells Fargo Center with my friend and his dad to watch the Sixers dismantle the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls 98-82 behind another all-around dominant performance by Andre.

On a night in which reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose was in the building, it was Andre Iguodala who was the best player on the court. Not Rose. Not former Bull Elton Brand. And certainly not two-time all-star Carlos Boozer. It was Andre Iguodala.

Once again, the man who everyone loves to criticize went out and did everything a basketball player can possibly do on the court, riled up a raucous Philadelphia crowd and led the Sixers to a marquee victory against one of the league's elite teams. It really was a beautiful thing to watch.

The stats are impressive enough: 19 points on 8-13 from the field and 2-3 from beyond the arc, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, a block and a few monster dunks, including this one over familiar face Kyle Korver.

But as has been the case all season long with Iggy, the stats don't tell the whole story. You see, there's just something about Andre this year that's different. It may not come through in his stat line, as he continues to put up all-around impressive numbers though nothing eye-popping, but it's in the way he carries himself and leads this young team. At 28 years old, he's the guy the rest of these youngsters look to for guidance, and you can see that Andre has embraced that role. He isn't going out there trying to prove himself any longer. He's going out there and trying to improve his teammates. And that's exactly what Iguodala is doing.

From the moment the ball was tossed in the air until the final horn sounded, Iggy controlled the game on both ends of the court. He was as a big a reason as any that the Bulls were forced to play at the Sixers' pace. Iguodala led the way, and his teammates followed suit. Because as is always the case with this Sixers team, it was a total team effort.

In the late stages of the fourth quarter, I looked up at the jumbotron from my seats in section 110 and saw this on the Sixers' side:

No. Pts. R A PF
11 17 4 5 3
9 19 9 4 3
23 14 1 6 1
21 19 8 1 0
50 15 6 3 2

Five different Sixers with at least 14 points, and all five chipping in with rebounds and assists pretty evenly distributed throughout. Jrue Holiday was brilliant in this one, keeping pace with Rose and taking care of the ball. Thaddeus Young had the quietest 19-8 game I can remember, yet did it so efficiently that it played a huge role. Plus, he, along with Elton Brand and Evan Turner, played remarkable defense. They were key in limiting the Bulls to just 82 points overall and just 11 points in the third quarter. Brand and Thad battled hard underneath against the much bigger Bulls frontcourt, rendering Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Omar Asik completely useless, while Turner stuck Kyle Korver and shut him down after Kyle hit some big threes early in the game. Evan also spent some time guarding Rose, making him work for everything he got.

But the second star of the game was without question rookie Lavoy Allen.

Few people really expected much if anything out of Allen in the NBA. He was a second-round pick out of Temple, a guy who had been a tremendous player for the Owls but a guy who also got criticized for what people perceived as a lack of effort. Truthfully, that's just the way Lavoy plays. He has a laid-back style. But if you watched him during his four years on North Broad Street, you know he was a battler who played tremendous post defense, rebounded like a demon — he is Temple's all-time leading rebounder after all — and made intelligent plays. Nothing flashy and sometimes not all that aggressive offensively, but incredibly effective. I envisioned him having a good career as a backup big noted for his defense and rebounding.

Still, I didn't expect much from him this season, yet here we are, with Allen having a breakout game against the best team in the Eastern Conference. His 15 points, 6 rebounds and three assists were huge, especially with his hustle plays in the first half that allowed the Sixers to take a lead into halftime. He's earned his spot on the nightshift, and Nik Vucevic is going to have to play his ass off to reclaim his place. Lavoy has simply come in and given the team a boost when it desperately needs it, with starting center Spencer Hawes still on the shelf, and he's embodying the Sixers' total team concept.

Conversely, the Bulls are still a one-man show on the offensive end. Derrick Rose is a fantastic player, one of the true elites in the league. But against excellent defensive teams like the Sixers and Heat, he needs help. Last night, he got none, as Boozer continued to suck, Noah was invisible and Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton couldn't go. That left guys like Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson responsible for getting points, and that spelled doom for the Bulls. Sure, Watson scored a game-high 20 points, but that was all the help Rose got. Take away the 38 scored by Rose and Watson, and the remainder of the Bulls put up a combined 44 points. Ugly.

Now, the naysayers out there will say that you can't really judge the Bulls without Deng and Hamilton, which is fine. Surely the Bulls are a more complete and better offensive team with those guys healthy. But even without them for portions of this season, Chicago has paced the East, so this is still a good basketball team. Plus, the Sixers didn't win solely because of their suffocating defense — though they certainly did play great defensively and now have the top defense in the entire NBA. They also managed to score 98 points against a Bulls defense that's limited opponents to just 87.9 points per game. Deng and Hamilton, for all their offense, aren't considered elite defenders, so putting up 98 points is impressive no matter how you look at it.

Then there is the fact that the Sixers completely and utterly thrashed the Chicago starters in the third quarter, outscoring the Bulls 26-11 and going up by 20 points, that Tom Thibodeau decided it was better to just rest his starters in the fourth quarter with another game on the docket tonight and a grueling road trip underway instead of leaving them out there for the demolition.

You can make all the excuses that you want to try and explain away this fast start and this impressive victory in particular — favorable schedule, facing the tough teams at home, etc. — but the fact remains that the Sixers are 16-6 this season, currently residing in second place in the Eastern Conference, and they just dismantled the only team ahead of them in the conference standings, not to mention that their best player is finally playing like a true all-star.

Last night, the atmosphere was like it was during Allen Iverson's heyday. The building was packed and the crowd was going wild. The Sixers were playing tremendous ball against one the best teams in the league. They took care of the ball and played remarkable defense. It felt 2001 all over again, I had a blast and i don't foresee that feeling going away anytime soon.

It may still be incredibly tough to fathom this team being able to get all that far in the postseason, but last night it became pretty clear: Andre Iguodala and the Philadelphia 76ers are the real deal.

The Top Ten Quarterbacks in the NFL Today

Once again, I was asked to partake in the ranking of the Top Ten Quarterbacks in the NFL by Kenny and the Sports Fan Journal Crew. There was only one caveat: Peyton Manning was ineligible since he didn't take a single snap all season.

The list is a pretty good one that's hard to argue with, so go check it out. Here's my list below.

1. Aaron Rodgers
2. Tom Brady
3. Drew Brees

Quick note, I think you can pretty much put those three in any order, and they are the top three quarterbacks that just seem to be on another plain than everyone else.

4. Ben Roethlisberger. I don't particularly care for Ben Roethlisberger, but there's no denying the toughness, leadership and ability of Ben Roethlisberger. He played a large majority of the season hobbled, like he always does, and still willed the Steelers to the playoffs. Even when he's visibly well less than 100 percent, he still finds a way to get it done. I have to respect that.

5. Eli Manning. I absolutely hate to put Eli this high. In fact, earlier this year I put him in the good but not great category. As an Eagles fan, I watch him play regularly, watch him make terrified faces and launch ducks off his back foot, and I see a guy that I just really wouldn't want to have to trust as my team's quarterback. But the thing is, you can trust Eli, and you should. He's proven time and again that he is not only tough — getting up from vicious hits regularly — but he's also clutch, breaking the NFL single-season record for 4th-quarter touchdown passes. Eli wanted to be regarded as an elite quarterback like his brother. Then he went out and proved that he is.

6. Tony Romo
7. Matt Ryan
8. Michael Vick. The Eagles offense could not even function without him, save for one fourth quarter where Vince Young actually looked like an NFL quarterback again. With him, though he had a terrible year with turnovers and couldn't stay healthy, they still managed to put a lot of points and go 5-1 in division games.
9. Matthew Stafford
10. Cam Newton. There's a very strong possibility that he'll shoot up the charts as early as next year. Almost put him higher, but need a few more wins and another strong season to have him leap the guys ahead of him with more extensive resumes.

Dropping out: Philip Rivers. Once upon a time, our very own Kenny Masenda claimed that Philip Rivers was better than Drew Brees. Then Rivers went out and threw 20 picks while playing some of the worst football I've ever seen before finally righting himself after it was already too late for the Chargers. I do expect Rivers to rebound and once again get firmly entrenched in the top 10, but he's not making the cut after that horrific 2011 season.

Also, Peyton would clearly be in the top 4 if he was healthy.