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Happy the Sixers Prolong the Playoff Season, But Not Drinkin’ the Philly Sports Kool-Aid This Time

May 12, 2012 1 comment

Andre Iguodala stepped up to the free throw stripe. He huffed and puffed a deep breath, and he calmly sank two foul shots in the final seconds of the game, hauling his Sixers team right into Round 2 of the NBA Playoffs.

Sounds like an excerpt plucked from a book in the fantasy section of Barnes & Noble. But it actually can be considered a piece of journalism, a factual account of how this professional basketball team advanced to the second round for the first time since 2003.

If this is Carlos Boozer’s face before Iggy stepped to the line, what do you think it looked like after he actually made both FTs?

If you were to have polled a slew of Sixers fans prior to that first foul shot, what percentage would you say would have predicted that Iggy would knock down both shots? 5 percent? 10? The pessimism bouncing around in the heads of the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center, and the negativity reverberating in living rooms throughout the Delaware Valley at the moment the ref raised his arm, were crucial to Iguodala’s metamorphosis into author of the latest chapter in the city’s compendium of playoff poetry.

If you look at this story collection chronologically, Iguodala’s recently penned entry follows an epic Flyers chapter, its ink still drying and its impact still etched in the fan base’s psyche. Yet, at the same time, the hockey team’s victorious march through an emotion-heavy slugfest with its cross-state rival seems like a bygone tale from a distant past.

Thanks to the way the schedules are stacked, the Sixers have sort of played this role all year. They have been the team the city has turned to and dumped their hope into. Today I reviewed some still un-erased, midseason notes on my work station whiteboard, most likely from early February when the Flyers were slipping a bit and the Sixers were starting to convince their city:

Just when another team fades, the Flyers shortcomings perhaps weaning them off from the list of Cup contenders, another team emerges to inject that ever-persistent dose of hope to the town’s sports junkies. So Philly.

 Even the Sixers, counted on to be embarrassing in recent years, are now right back in the mix of this cycle. But fans really have a chance to detour away from Letdown City if they keep their expectations right where they were to start the season. Winning a playoff series was the goal at the outset and should remain the goal. The problem is teams around here rarely exceed the fans’ expectations because the passionate followers adjust those expectations midway.

And thus the Philadelphia sports samsara goes on. Put hope in a team, team wins. Put even more hope in a team, it loses. Don’t put much hope in the next team, team wins. Now put hope in that team, team loses.

For me, the Sixers have been tough to put much optimism into, as I find it difficult to get excited about a team you know does not have the tools to win a championship. Not even the divine intervention that placed Iguodala’s two foul shots through the hoop is going to change my stance on that. But the blessing of this position is the ability to step back and acknowledge that one of our teams reached its realistic goal. I have no problem putting the Bulls injury circumstances aside and enjoying the accomplishment. But I don’t want my tempered expectations to be misconstrued as dissatisfaction.

I have no problem clenching a fist over a Sixers playoff series win. But that’s about as far as I’ll go.

In the postgame minutes of Thursday night, I tweeted that I felt good for Andre Iguodala, and implied that I felt good for his team as well. However I also went on to post the following message on Facebook:

 The Sixers advancing is like being given a few extra drops of water as you are starting to cross the desert. You undoubtedly want them, but the impending doom of a whole summer of just Phillies is still staring you smack in the face and you know you’ll be out of agua soon.

A non-Philadelphian reacted to my comments and the supplementary comments of my fellow Philadelphians by calling into question our ability to be pleased. “Flyers out, obviously a bummer. Sixers move on, also a bummer?” he asks.

Quite the opposite, I say. I am happy and truly thankful of what the Sixers have accomplished. I will call their season a success with a straight face, and I will be rooting for them like crazy to take down the Celtics tonight in Game 1. I am just unwilling to recalibrate my scale of expectation this time around. I am heeding my own midseason advice this time, unwilling to roll up my sleeve and shoot up with what I know is another lethal dose of hope.

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Rollin’ without J-Roll

September 21, 2010 1 comment

I love this city. A couple months ago, when the Fightin’ Phils were slumping hard, even those in the camp that said the Phillies would be okay down the stretch, must have had some moments of doubt about the team’s playoff hopes. Today, there isn’t a soul in the city who can be convinced we’re not winning the whole thing.

More so than the ups and downs of the Philly faith, this swing can be attributed to the nature of this ball club. The team that broke the championship drought continues to thrive off its unique character, and is once again dominating the competition when it matters most.

The Phillies are clicking on all cylinders right now. They are in the driver’s seat with a four game division lead and a scarier trio of aces than the table camera has ever shown on the World Series of Poker.

With Madson clearly back on the stuff that added a few mph to his fastball overnight in ’08, and Lidge looking lights out once more, I have only one person to be worried about right now.

Jimmy Rollins.

How will Jimmy fit into the postseason puzzle?

This year, I’m not worried his strained hamstring injury will linger, I’m worried that it won’t. He has been the achilles heel of this team all year, himself a strain on the offensive lineup. Whenever there is a debate about letting a rusty, yet experienced player back in the order after being sidelined, I’m usually in favor it, especially when a guy has the accolades that J-Roll has as a former league MVP.

In addition to that trophy, he holds the post of team leader, so you’ve got to get him back in the lineup as soon as he’s healthy, right?

No. Not at this point. Wilson Valdez has stepped in and done so many things right that Rollins has done wrong. He walks, he makes productive outs, he gets clutch hits and puts the ball in play. His on-base percentage has gone up and up as the season goes on, and he has a .400 OBP this month. He gets on base, something Rollins has struggled to do for what seems like an eternity.

This is the only image I could find of J-Roll on base. No wonder he's thanking god.

A great argument for the re-insertion of J-Roll is his defense, which has been the only consistent part of his game over the last few years. But the Phillies have not worsened much in the infield with Valdez patrolling the shortstop’s land. The starting lineup may not sound as sexy with a guy named Wilson filling in for a guy named Jimmy, but it has been stronger.

Rollins’ absence has led to two very important offensive developments:

  1. Victorino Leading Off: Victorino has relished in the leadoff spot. He, like Rollins, is not really an ideal candidate for the top of the order. He can be a free-swinger, but Shane is one of the strangest players I’ve ever watched regularly. As much as his aggression leads him to hit into his share of pop-ups, he also has some of the more patient at-bats you’ll see from anyone on the team. He draws his share of walks. Rollins never seems to walk, and that alone makes Victorino more valuable there. He’s got a .438 on-base percentage during September, a month he’s spent atop the lineup. The Flyin’ Hawaiian has been getting on, stealing bases, and giving the team a spark. He should stay there. Sure, he swings for the fences occasionally, but at least he’s shown the power (17 HR) that Rollins seems to have lost a few years ago. Like Rollins, he’s an unconventional No. 1 hitter, but one that seems to work the way Rollins hasn’t for a while now.
  2. Ruiz Moved up to No. 7: CHOOOOOOOOCH!!!! Has anyone captured the heart of this city the way this cuddly Panamanian has? He’s practically rendered Chase Utley an afterthought as fan favorite. Ruiz continues to get more and more dangerous as a player. He used to have the reputation as a player who grew his worth exponentially come Autumn. But now he may as well be called Señor Abril Hasta Noviembre. It’s at the point where his appearance at the plate, with a man on base, sends everyone to the kitchen because an RBI-double is a forgone conclusion. The Phillies are finally riding Chooch’s value to its fullest. Buried in the eigth hole previously, so many of his clutch at-bats got lost in bottom-of-the-order irrelevance. I mean, turning over the lineup is fun and all, but knocking runs in is baller. The omission of Rollins has allowed Ruiz to bat in more big-time situations with Howard, Werth and Ibañez on the base paths.

Thus, the Rollins dilemma. I have to realistically think Rollins will be back in there if his injury allows. He does bring playoff experience and leadership. He showed last season with his game-winning double against LA in the playoffs (which left me at the bottom of a pile of strangers by the way), he has a flare for the dramatic that Valdez will likely never have, and even when he’s slumping, he can drive a pitch for extra bases.

I do want Jimmy back in there if he gets better, and hopefully Valdez can continue his good work off the bench. But Rollins unquestionably should bat No. 8 in the lineup. He’s earned his right to play in the lineup, but he shouldn’t be entitled to anything beyond that.

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