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The playoffs started a week early for the Sixers

The playoffs started a week early for the Sixers

The playoffs started a week early for the 76ers. With the three seed likely on the line, the Sixers pounded the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first half Friday night, but apparently not into total submission, as the Cavs came zooming back in the third to make it a game, and nearly stole it outright. Though their lead was tested to its absolute breaking beyond, it never snapped entirely, and the Sixers walked away dazed but victorious, 132-130.

Hard to know where to start with this one, so let's just start in the first half. There is nothing in basketball more fun than watching your up-and-coming group of fringe contenders straight blowing one of the league's actual contenders out of the water, as the Sixers put such a hurting on the Cavs it looked like there was no way they could recover before the clock ran out on the fourth. They were up 75-45, stunting on Cleveland and LeBron in just about every way possible — circus passes, dunks, blocks, threes on threes on threes. Cleveland was allowing open lanes to the basket, throwing the ball away, generally just looking disinterested in competing with the fully actualized 76ers. On a night like last night, it would've been hard to blame them.

But despite trailing by as much as 30, the Cavs ended the half on a 7-0 run that set the tone for the half to come. Cleveland started the third with two straight triples, and were increasingly indomitable from there, as the Sixers started pulling their old-fashioned third-quarter shenanigans of missing wide-open dunks (luv ya Amir Johnson!!) and running into each other on offense and dribbling the ball off their leg out of bounds. LeBron was LeBron, second night of a back-to-back be damned — nailing three-pointers with impunity, backing Marco Belinelli all the way to South Carolina, dunking through Ersan Ilyasova like he was a cardboard cutout of a defender.

Halfway through the third quarter, the lead was basically gone, causing many a flashback to the Warriors beat down of half a season prior, where the team doing the beating flipped halfway through and by the beginning of the fourth, it was already Golden State that was pulling away. But the Sixers never actually sacrificed the lead in this one — they somehow maintained it until the final buzzer, despite several times reaching what looked to be their absolute breaking point of elasticity. Every time the Cavs came within a bucket, Philly was able to maintain order — eventually ending up with a win that was even more impressive than if they'd just continued whooshing Cleveland off the floor for the full 48.

First and foremost, this was a Ben Simmons game. J.J. Redick scored 28, Robert Covington was amazing on defense, Markelle Fultz had his strongest game of the season off the bench, Marco Belinelli hit six threes, but Simmons was the guy who was at the heart of everything last night. I mentioned on Twitter last night that this version of Ben Simmons is already a better player than I thought he'd ever be, let alone as a rookie, and it's hard to know what much more you could want from him than he gave us last night: 27 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals, 12-17 FG, and a huge play seemingly whenever the Sixers desperately needed one (see story). He went toe-to-toe with the greatest player in the world -- his mentor, even, who's put him in his place in head-to-head matchups earlier this season — and to say he showed no fear would be an unfair implication that he shows any such emotion, like, ever. I won't say he's better or more important to this team than Joel Embiid, but I will say that I think if it was Embiid and no Simmons in that game last night, I don't think they would've been able to hold on.

And this team only just barely did, really. Jeff Green, who somehow scored 33 points on just 12 shots last night, hit a three with 12 seconds to go to make it a one-point Cavs advantage, and after a couple rounds of playing the foul game back and forth, Robert Covington somehow ended up putting LeBron on the line for three with Cleveland down that many, giving them a chance to tie. (Cov actually fouled before the shot attempt, but remarkably, the ref only saw the shooting foul.) LeBron missed the second, luckily, but gave the Cavs another chance with a perfect intentional miss of his third attempt, with Larry Nance Jr. actually getting his hand on the rebound for a decent put-back look to tie. But it spilled off, the Cavs were out of miracles, and the Sixers limped away winners.

In the end, that's the important thing: The W. This could've been a moral victory either way, but the Sixers are at that magical point in their timeline where it actually matters whether they literally win the game or not, and last night they did. It was their 13th in a row, and their 49th on the season — one away from that magic number JoJo wanted and I thought they'd never get. With the Pacers losing, they're just one more win (or an Indy loss) away from clinching home court in the first round — though they basically need to win out to secure the three seed, as they're only a half-game over the Cavs, without the tiebreaker, and all Cleveland has left on their schedule is a home-and-home against the woeful Knicks.

Regardless, even if it doesn't end up clinching 'em the three seed — and a potential first-round showdown against the Heat, which could lead to a second-round matchup with the injury-stricken Celtics — last night was the kind of Sixers game fans will remember for a long, long time. They won big, until they had to win small, and then they did that too — against a guy Brett Brown called pre-game "the best player to have ever played," (see story) and without our own best player in uniform. As the "Trust the Process" chants rained down on the Wells Fargo Center last night, it was hard to remember what the other options even were for all these years.

The 700 Level's 2018 Philadelphia Sports Awards

The 700 Level's 2018 Philadelphia Sports Awards

Thank you for joining us for The 700 Level’s fifth-annual, almost-didn’t-happen-this-time Philadelphia Sports Awards. If you’re wondering why you don’t recall reading or hearing about any of our first four outings, that’s because we’ve rebranded for 2018, moving away from “The KULPYs” due to the writer’s lack of marketability or relevance. Pretty sure that guy is covering the food scene somewhere over in the Middle East these days.

In other words: New title, slightly different format, same shtick. Now that we’ve suckered you in, let’s get down to business.

It’s been a big year for the Eagles, as you might imagine.

Philadelphia Athlete of the Year: Carson Wentz
Runner-up: Joel Embiid

Prior to suffering a torn ACL, Wentz was enjoying an MVP-caliber season. He set an Eagles franchise record with 33 touchdown passes — and needed only 13 games to do it. And while the team managed to win the Super Bowl without him, Wentz helped secure home-field for the playoffs with an 11-2 record as a starter. He was the most consistently dominant athlete in the city over the past year.

Comeback Athlete of the Year: Nick Foles
Runner-up: Claude Giroux

Let’s make sure Foles gets his due, though. Pretty much everybody left his career for dead after an ugly stint with the Rams, and even as late as the second quarter of the divisional playoff game against the Falcons, few believed he would ever catch lighting in a bottle again. Sure enough, Foles regained his 2013 form just in time to post one of the most incredible postseason runs in NFL history, completing 72.5 percent of his passes for 860 yards and six touchdowns to one interception over his last 10 quarters of action. Unlike ’13, we’re pretty sure this isn’t a fluke — he has the ring to prove it.

Rookie of the Year: Rhys Hoskins
Runner-up: Ben Simmons

What’s the KULPYs without a little controversy? Simmons seems like the obvious choice, but his unwillingness or inability to shoot the basketball caused him to get exposed in the end. Then there’s the whole debate over whether he’s even truly a rookie or not after missing his first year with an injury. Hoskins hasn’t lit the world on fire in 2018, though he’s still hit 32 home runs in his first 586 plate appearances, with a supporting cast that isn’t making things any easier. We'll operate under All-Star Game rules and select Hoskins on the basis the Phillies need a little representation here.

The Andrew Bynum Award for Most Disliked Sports Figure: Robert Covington
Runner-up: Gabe Kapler

Covington signed a four-year contract worth $62 million in November, then fell out of favor with fans almost immediately. He began the ’17-18 season with a hot shooting hand, but cooled off and became extremely streaky from beyond the arc. What’s worse, RoCo’s defensive effort seemed inconsistent at times, as well, which he could always hang his hat on previously when the offense wasn’t there. Now, there’s no question a good portion of fans would like to see him moved, though the reality is the Sixers might be stuck with that contract for a while.

The Chip Kelly Award for Most Nonsensical Scandal: Bryan Colangelo
Runner-up: Markelle Fultz

Take your pick from a host of Sixers screw-ups. From Embiid constantly feuding with management over playing time, to trading hometown hero Mikal Bridges during his introductory press conference, it’s certainly been an interesting year. Yet, Colangelo’s wife’s numerous Twitter burner accounts releasing sensitive information and defending the former GM’s choice in shirt collars was the most bizarre thing to happen in Philly sports in the last 12 months, probably longer. By the way, the Sixers are still seeking Colangelo’s replacement, which means the repercussions of this stupidity are still being felt.

Dumbest Philly Sports Take: Mike Lombardi
Runner-up: Colin Cowherd

If Lombardi had merely insinuated Doug Pederson may not have been the greatest choice to lead the Eagles, few would’ve strongly disagreed with that statement a year ago. But even at the time, after Pederson won seven games as a rookie head coach, claiming he was “the most unqualified coach” in NFL history was over the top. Few hot takes have ever aged so poorly so quickly, with Pederson leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl. The truly ironic part is Lombardi is a failed NFL executive and out of the league — maybe he should’ve realized he isn’t necessarily the greatest judge of talent.

The Competency Award for Best Coach or Executive: Sam Hinkie
Runners-up: Doug Pederson, Howie Roseman

What would the KULPYs be without some good ol’ fashioned trolling? Obviously, Pederson, Roseman or even Jay Wright are all worthy choices here. Then again, after watching the Sixers win 52 games and coast to the second round of the playoffs with a coach (Brett Brown) and core (Embiid, Simmons, Dario Saric) Hinkie put in place, the former GM’s sacrifice deserves remembrance. Maybe the day will come when we can leave Hinkie in the past. Then again, if there were any justice in the world, the Sixers would probably rehire him to take Colangelo’s place right now.

Philadelphian of the Year/Lifetime Achievement Award: Jason Kelce
Runners-up: Not applicable

There wasn’t even a close second. Kelce’s profanity-laced speech at the Eagles victory parade was the single greatest moment a lot of people from this area will ever witness in their lives. More than that, it cemented Kelce as not only one of the legendary players in Philly history. It demonstrated he's one of us to the core. Ranting and raving? Check. Gratuitous swearing? Check. Visible intoxication? Check, check, check.

That’s all we have. Sorry, Flyers, better luck next year.

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at linebacker?

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at linebacker?

Jordan Hicks is back after missing much of the previous season with an injury, but his return helped push Mychal Kendricks out the door.

Kendricks was released and signed with the Browns. Hicks is working his way back from a major injury. Did the 2018 Eagles linebackers take a step forward as a result of the swap, or gamble breaking up a dynamic Super Bowl-winning tandem?

Better

Playmaking

Kendricks enjoyed a resurgent season in 2017, coming off the bench and performing serviceably in his enhanced role after Hicks’ injury. Yet, the big plays were largely absent from the Eagles’ linebacker corps as a result of the switch. Kendricks recorded zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles and zero fumble recoveries, including playoffs.

That’s unlikely to be the case with Hicks, as long as he’s healthy. The Eagles’ middle linebacker showed a knack for coming up with big plays his first two seasons, racking up seven interceptions, one forced fumble and five recoveries.

Hicks is attempting to recover from a ruptured Achilles, so there’s always a chance he’s slowed by the injury or not quite 100 percent when the season begins. Then again, he’s so much more of an instinctive player than Kendricks, even losing a step, Hicks is likely to wind up with the football in his hands more frequently. It may be only a handful of plays, but those are the ones that swing the outcomes of games.

Worse

Pass rushing

One area where Kendricks might be superior to Hicks is behind the line of scrimmage. Kendricks’ 2.0 sacks in ’17 match Hicks’ career total, and he has 14.0 in six years. Kendricks also graded as the most productive pass-rushing 4-3 outside linebacker by Pro Football Focus with 13 total pressures in 49 blitz attempts.

Of course, therein lies one of the problems with Kendricks’ ability. Under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Eagles don’t really make full use of his elite athleticism, often preferring to rush four rather than send the house.

It’s difficult to gauge how much of a loss Kendricks’ speed off the edge will be considering he was in line to play about 25 percent of the snaps if he stuck around. Regardless, his departure creates a void in that role.

The same

Nigel Bradham

At least the Eagles managed to retain reliable Bradham, who was their biggest priority in free agency this offseason. A case could be made the seventh-year veteran is the team’s best linebacker, too — not injury-prone, like Hicks, but consistent and always plays under control, unlike Kendricks.

Bradham will miss opening night due to a one-game suspension for an off-field incident, but when he returns, the Eagles have a reliable defender who can play strongside — his natural position — or in the middle. The seventh-year player posted 205 tackles, 3.0 sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles in two seasons with the club.

The unknown

Weakside linebacker

Kendricks’ departure does create a void at weakside linebacker, and it’s currently unclear who the Eagles will choose to fill it. Corey Nelson was signed away from the Broncos in free agency, but played special teams for most of his four seasons there. Special teams ace Kamu Grugier-Hill and 2017 fifth-round pick Nathan Gerry are also in the mix, and even more unproven than Nelson.

Fortunately, the weakside spot is only on the field roughly a quarter of the time, so it’s not the biggest of holes. It was also a job in which Kendricks didn’t particularly excel.

Better or worse?

Given Kendricks’ struggles in the weakside spot in previous years, how Nelson or the competition will fare probably isn’t the greatest of concerns. The top two linebacker spots are what matter most here, and getting Hicks back is a huge boost. Kendricks does a few things very well, but is more of a liability in coverage, and the Eagles’ lack of urgency to use his ability to attack made him a poor fit. The linebackers may be only marginally improved given their depth is still a question mark, but Hicks is an upgrade. BETTER

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