The beauty of the pandemic, maybe the only beauty of it, is that as a sportswriter, you can cover more than one sport at once. I don’t mean that you can bop from 76ers practice in Camden one day to a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park the next night to a Flyers skate in Voorhees the following morning. I mean that, since there’s no in-person access to the players and coaches and managers anyway, you can plop down in your favorite chair, arm yourself with your laptop and remote control, and divide your attention between a couple of events that might demand it, assuming the fast-twitch muscles in your clicker/DVR-rewind finger are operating at their highest level of efficiency and explosiveness. Just be sure to keep your pre- and post-game Zoom schedules straight.
Take Monday night. The Sixers were playing the Spurs on one channel, and the Phillies were playing the Yankees on another, and you could see the predictable arc of each game unfurl itself in real time, sometimes slowly, sometimes with remarkable speed. By the time Sixers-Spurs tipped off, Jake Arrieta already had allowed two home runs, two doubles, and three runs over three innings. By the time the Sixers had built a double-digit lead over the Spurs, the Phillies’ bullpen had given up another three runs.
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Then, in a span of what seemed no more than a few seconds, Andrew McCutchen and Rhys Hoskins struck out with runners on second and third and the Phillies down four runs, Joel Embiid committed a turnover, Ben Simmons fouled out, the Sixers burped up their lead, and Tobias Harris shot an airball. It hadn’t taken long for the novelty and normalcy of watching Philadelphia sports to give way to the familiarity and frustration of watching Philadelphia sports.
For most fans who tuned in to the Sixers, the Phillies, or both on Monday, that familiarity was likely the source of the frustration. One of the attractions of having sports resume was the possibility that the layoff would somehow transform these teams into different, better versions of what they were expected to be or had been. Maybe Simmons will shoot from the outside. Maybe Shake Milton will shoot those shots instead. Maybe the compressed schedule and the urgency of the playoffs will compel the Sixers to play better defense. Maybe the Phillies will find a young reliever or two who can get outs in big spots. Maybe Hoskins will rediscover his batting stroke after losing it last year.
You wait all these months for the games to begin again, and though Zack Wheeler was brilliant in his debut and Embiid appears to be in honest-to-God peak physical condition (for now), the Phillies’ bullpen is still a nightly fireworks show, and Hoskins has hit one ball hard in four games, and without the basketball in his hands, Simmons looks lost or uninterested at both ends of the floor, and the Sixers are still less than what the sum of their parts was supposed to be.
None of these trends is destined to continue for the rest of each team’s season — presuming, of course, that each team is able to complete its season. But the results so far wouldn’t have surprised anyone before the pandemic, and they shouldn’t surprise anyone now.
The same principle holds for the team that has come rip-roaring out of the quarantine: the Flyers. They were peaking, having won nine of 10 games, when the NHL season stopped, and they followed an overtime victory over the Penguins in a scrimmage with an impressive 4-1 victory over the Bruins in the teams’ first round-robin game.
There was no wheel for the Flyers and coach Alain Vigneault to reinvent, no equivalent situation to Brett Brown’s pairing Simmons and Milton together or Joe Girardi’s necessary hey-let’s-give-Ramon-Rosso-a-shot approach to the sixth and seventh innings. Vigneault didn’t have to experiment with his lineup, didn’t have to hope that a player would improve dramatically or emerge from nowhere to turn the Flyers into a contender. They already were one.
“The biggest part of being coaches is selling your system, selling your game plan, and we don’t need to sell our game plan. Guys bought it,” Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere said last month. “We were having a really good season. It’s not like we’ve got to go in the room and convince the guys it’s the right way to play. They know it’s the right way to play. We were successful with the system.”