Someone finally missed that shot vs. the Sixers

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Someone finally missed that shot vs. the Sixers

Eric Gordon. Brandon Ingram. De'Aaron Fox. 

The Sixers have a nearly unparalleled knock for getting killed by big shots in the final minute, one they haven't shown much flair for reciprocating since T.J. vs. the Knicks. Seems like every time the ball finds its way to an opposing shooter beyond the arc with that guy's team down two and a Sixers defender lunging in his direction, the ball inevitably goes down, usually taking Philly's hope along with it. 

Not last night. The scene was certainly set in Denver: Sixers get out to a decent-sized late lead, get impossibly tight down the stretch, give up silly turnovers and allow the other team to slowly (or quickly) creep its way back in the game. And so an 11-point margin had shrunk to three in the final minute, with the Nuggets skipping the ball around the perimeter until it ended up in the hands of Will Barton, free for a look as Jerryd Bayless scrambled to throw a hand in his face. To say that Sixers fans had seen this movie more times than all 23 Rocky movies combined would still be an understatement. 

But somehow, the shot was long, and clanked off the back rim. Dario Saric (sort of) secured the rebound, and the Sixers held on for the 107-102 victory. Yes, Virginia: Somebody finally missed that goddamn shot against the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Good thing, too, because the Sixers needed that win, for a number of reasons. Most crucially, taking down the Nuggets without Joel Embiid basically squares the Sixers for their embarrassing road loss in Portland minus the Blazers' best player, and prevents them from slipping to five games under .500, a detour from the playoff hunt that would've been pretty tough for the Ballers to navigate their way back from. With a win tonight in Phoenix, the Sixers could even potentially end this five-game road stint with a winning record -- no small thing, especially considering when we get back to the WFC, they're slated for four toughies against the Spurs, Pistons, Celtics and Raptors.

And getting the win without Embiid -- their first such W in their last seven tries -- was undoubtedly huge for the team's (and Brett Brown's) confidence and sanity, considering how despairing they've looked without JoJo of late. The Sixers' calendar-ending back-to-back set is at least the last such two-fer the team will have until late January, so they should have JoJo available most nights, but you never know with the star center, and if the Sixers want any chance of making the postseason, they can't afford to just write off every game where he's not playing. 

As big as it is to get the W, though, it wouldn't be terribly realistic to look at this as a feel-good win. The Sixers did blow the game -- going up 103-97 with four minutes to go, and then not scoring again until Denver was forced to foul in final half-minute -- but the Nuggets just didn't capitalize on their late-game ineptitude well enough to steal back the victory. Ben Simmons played splendidly as usual on defense but was largely terrible on offense, ending with just six and six with five turnovers, his most ineffective game in the midst of what surely marks the roughest stretch of his rookie season. 

In truth, the Sixers were bailed out of this one by their backup backcourt, McConnell and Bayless. We're used to T.J. playing savior by now -- 10 points and eight assists in 25 minutes, including a gorgeous floor-length laser of a dime to Robert Covington that's certainly one for the end-of-year sizzle reel -- but Bayless' clutch play in the early fourth was an extremely pleasant surprise, as he scored a quick seven to start the quarter and get the Sixers the separation they needed to hang on when he and the rest of the team ran out of miracles later in the quarter. 

Final game of 2017 tonight in Phoenix, presumably with Joel this time. If you told us at the beginning of the season the Sixers would be entering 2018 at 17-19... it wouldn't exactly feel like a triumph, but it'd least be "OK, fair enough." Seems to me that "OK, fair enough" is reasonable thing to shoot for at year's end, no? 

Have mercy on us, Devin Booker. 

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.