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Happy holidays from Joel Embiid and T.J. McConnell

Happy holidays from Joel Embiid and T.J. McConnell

Well, if you had spaced on the NBA until you decided to tune into Sixers-Knicks this Christmas, you might have a very different idea of 2017 basketball than the generally accepted narrative. 

The two teams combined to shoot 14 of 44 from three-point land — the Knicks didn't even make a triple until the second half — and the game was instead won and lost down low and on the glass, with Sixers franchise everything Joel Embiid (yes, he played, thank all religious deities) battling with Knicks bigs Enes Kanter and Kristaps Porzingis (in that order, surprisingly) for 34 extremely hard-fought minutes. The Sixers escaped with the 105-98 win — barely, but it counts — in their first Christmas game since 2001, largely thanks to the beyond-Herculean efforts of Embiid and huge work around the margins by Best Supporting Processor T.J. McConnell.

Gotta start with Joel, of course. Without our JoJo, entirely possible this thing was over by halftime -- the Sixers' offense was miserable to start, nobody else could do anything about Kanter (31 and 22!!) underneath, and the Knicks' guards essentially paraded to the rim. But some big post buckets, a major effort on the boards and a handful of absolutely sacrilegious rim denials from The Process kept The Sixers in this one, despite terrible shooting halves from Dario Saric and Robert Covington and a largely neutralized Ben Simmons. 

Embiid also paraded to the line in the third quarter, and though he seemed to run out of gas in the fourth — racking up half of his six turnovers and losing his indomitability down low — he also hit an absolutely enormous shot-clock-beating triple in the final minutes to essentially put the game out of New York's reach. His 34 minutes were definitely pushing it, and may have consequences for Embiid and the Sixers beyond this one, but no chance were they winning with Joel capped at 28. We'll find out soon enough whether it ends up being worth it, but in the meantime, you can't say enough about Jo's MVP-caliber performance this afternoon: 25 and 16 with three blocks and a matches-the-eye-test +25 for the day. Not even a typical Sixers late-game turnover-and-foul apocalypse could undo it. 

As good as Embiid was, it was pretty troubling how little support he got elsewhere. Simmons had some huge plays in transition, particularly a late steal that led to a breakaway dunk that further clinched the game for the Sixers, but he was bottled up in the halfcourt, unable to find the seams in the Knicks' defense, finishing with just eight points on eight shots. Not helping was that our floor-stretching forwards were thoroughly ineffectual, with Saric and Covington combining to shoot 1 for 10 on mostly open three-point looks, and Cov sitting for most of the fourth quarter. Of our nominal shooters, only JJ Redick — back from injury after missing both Toronto games — found his groove in this one, scoring a tremendous 24 points on just 10 shots, albeit with his usual couple of head-smacking unforced TOs down the stretch.

JoJo's most reliable wingman in this one was undoubtedly T.J. McConnell. Teej was typically maniacal in this one, pestering guards full-court, diving full-tilt towards the hoop and figuring out his gameplan seemingly on the fly, coming up with massive steals and even bigger buckets (2 of 4 from deep on open looks, which on this afternoon basically made him Steph Curry). Even the turnovers he didn't directly cause he seemed to influence with his chaos-inducing D, and it was telling that after refraining from playing him in the final minutes in most close Sixers games of late, Brett Brown finally stuck with T.J. for the long haul today. Here's hoping we don't see Jerryd Bayless over him during winning time anytime soon. 

It'd probably be misleading to call this an entirely feel-good win for the Sixers. Some of Brown's lineups remain perplexing, and why Richaun Holmes appears to be out of the rotation when he's shown far more effectiveness alongside Joel than Trevor Booker is a question not easily answered. Simmons seems increasingly compromised by defenses that don't allow him rim runs, and he'll have to continue to develop other facets of his offensive game to avoid racking up more games scoring in simple digits. And 34 minutes is just too many minutes for a game-time-decision Embiid — probably even when the game hangs in the balance. 

Nonetheless, it was a win. For the Sixers. On national TV. On Christmas. Considering how rough a December this has been for the Liberty Ballers, and how down most of us have gotten as a result, it's a necessary reality check to take stock of this moment and acknowledge that on the whole, things with this team are still generally fun and exciting and beautiful. You could tell from how pronounced the Process presence was at MSG today: Nearly home-team-loud cheers for Sixers highlights, sporadic "E-A-G-L-E-S" chants, and of course, enough "TRUST-THE-PRO-CESS!" that the Knicks fans needed to get booing to drown out. 

The team's got their work cut out for them at 15-18 to get back into the playoff hunt at this point, for sure. But if Embiid's back behaves and an effective Markelle Fultz (who teased a Christmas surprise that has still yet to materialize) re-enters the mix soon, the team should still be a factor in the East in the months to come -- and games like today's, where they secure the W playing far from their best 48, are evidence why. It's not a feel-good win, but you're still encouraged to feel good about the Sixers this Christmas. 

Mask-wearing pioneer Rip Hamilton has advice for Joel Embiid

Mask-wearing pioneer Rip Hamilton has advice for Joel Embiid

Detroit Pistons star Richard Hamilton wasn't the first player to wear a mask in the NBA but sometimes it feels like he was.

Newsweek caught up with Rip this week to talk about his mask-wearing days and to see if he had any words of wisdom for Joel Embiid. Hamilton first wore a mask for breaking his nose, but he continued to wear it for the remainder of his career.

Embiid made his first playoff appearance of his career last night in Miami while rocking a new mask complete with a custom visor to protect his eyes. It was clearly bothering him but he didn't let it dictate his play.

“It was difficult,” Embiid said of the mask. “But to me it wasn’t really about getting used to it because at the end of the day, no matter how much it bothers me, I’ve still got to be a basketball player."

Hamilton has famously said that he embraced the mask to the point of it becoming his "Batman cape" which allowed him to be more aggresive.

"Over a period of time I started to get used to it. As basketball players, a lot of times you go to the basket and it’s a lot of elbows being thrown, guys are getting poked in the eye," he told Newsweek this week. "You tend to clench up because you don’t want to get hit in the face. Once I started wearing that mask I wasn’t clenching up no more. I was willing to take contact more. I was able to get to the free throw line more because now I’m not scared of getting hit in the face. It kind of made me into a more aggressive and better basketball player."

Hamilton's message to Embiid prior to the series?

"Embrace it. Make it cool. Make it fun. Make it like a prop. Don’t get caught up in saying like, 'I got a piece of plastic on my face. I’m worrying about how I look, I’m worrying about my perception when I shoot.' When you’re out there in, like, shooting drills, don’t be so caught up in putting the mask on and trying to worry about how you shoot with it on. Put it on in the game and just wear it because our game is a non-thinking sport. React. You gotta read and react as quick as possible. The less thinking you do, the better you’ll be."

Rip also took notice of Embiid's frustration with the mask following the game. He encouraged Jo that it only gets easier.

I’ve thrown my mask off numerous times lil bro @joelembiid ...It will get more comfortable game by game ..Trust The Process. #MaskOnMaskOff#YouGotTheJuiceNow #Holdat #Yessir#Mask #TnT #nba #nbaplayoffs #sixers#sixersvsheat #LoveThisGame

Eagles players with the most to gain at OTAs – S Tre Sullivan

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Eagles players with the most to gain at OTAs – S Tre Sullivan

The Eagles don’t hit the practice field as a team for another five weeks, yet each year coaches point to players who distinguish themselves during the months of April and May. These are the players with the most to gain in phases one and two of OTAs.

There isn’t an unheralded prospect in better position to climb the Eagles’ depth chart this spring than Tre Sullivan.

Never mind the fact that vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas just got done lauding Sullivan’s performance in a pre-draft interview on Thursday. The 24-year-old also happens to be one of only four safeties on the Eagles roster for the time being, creating a huge opportunity for an undrafted free agent from Shepherd College.

Competition will come soon enough, as safety is an obvious target for the Eagles in the upcoming draft. Even then, Sullivan could find himself in the mix for a big role with a good spring.

Last season, Corey Graham was the Eagles’ third safety behind Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Graham, a free agent departure, wound up playing nearly 40 percent of the team’s snaps.

This isn’t merely a backup job. There’s serious playing time at stake – and Sullivan can get a jump on the competition.

Sullivan made a name for himself in last year’s preseason opener against the Packers with a vicious hit on wide receiver Malachi Dupre. It was a scary moment, as Dupre was knocked out by the collision, but also a clean play and an example of the defensive back’s physicality.

Sullivan forced a fumble on the hit and finished with four tackles. He would go on to acquit himself well in three other preseason games, eventually landing on the Eagles’ practice squad.

Listed at 6-foot-0, 200 pounds, Sullivan is a relatively average size for a safety, but plays downhill and hits like a truck.

The Eagles liked the instincts and aggressiveness they saw on the field. Now, Sullivan has a chance to work out and learn from coaches in an environment where there really aren’t any other young players right now and he can be the focus of a lot of attention. Phases one and two of OTAs and the two weeks before the draft in particular could be a pivotal period.

If Sullivan impresses during these early stages, it could go a long way toward solidifying his place with the team.

Even if Sullivan is bested for the third safety spot, he could still wind up on the 53-man roster. The Eagles may opt to carry five since Chris Maragos primarily plays on special teams.

Sullivan will likely enter training camp as a player who’s considered to be on the bubble, and what he does when the pads go on will be most important. However, if he showed up and really nailed these workouts, that could go a long way toward how the team views him heading into this summer.