The Sixers just beat one of the NBA's best teams. What the hell do we do now?

The Sixers just beat one of the NBA's best teams. What the hell do we do now?

You would think that watching the 76ers pull off a road upset of the 26-7 Portland Trail Blazers about an hour or so after the Eagles came up just short in Philadelphia's first big four playoff game since May of 2012 would help ease the heartbreak of sports fans in the City of Brotherly Love, give them something nice to think about for the future and remind them that generally speaking, all is not totally lost. At the very least, you'd certainly think the win wouldn't add to the city's misery on the night, right?

Well, unfortunately, things aren't so simple in Philadelphia sports this year, and in the words of Rosie Perez in White Men Can't Jump, sometimes when you win, you lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win. (And sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie...yeah.) The Sixers' surprise W in Portland was not met with delight and wonderment, but--at least from the Philly dudes on my Twitter--rather a sense of foreboding panic: Oh crap, the team's actually good again, what the hell are we gonna do now?

This is, of course, not only due to last night's win, but the fact that the W marks four in a row for the Sixers, all on the road, all against the stacked Western Conference. The winning streak is the longest of the season for the Liberty Ballers, and brings them up to a tie for tenth place in the East standings. Most incredibly, with their 12-21 record, they are now a mere two games behind the Charlotte Bobcats for eighth place in this crappy conference, and a possible playoff bid.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. This time two Sundays ago, we were applauding a road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks--the friggin' 5-21 Bucks, who have gone a sparkling 1-5 since beating the Sixers--which seemed to crystallize the Sixers' brilliant, seemingly foolproof plan to sink all the way to the bottom. I had this conversation with my girlfriend the next morning:

Me: "The Sixers lost last night to the worst team in the NBA."
Her: "Oh, sorry. Who's the worst team in the NBA?"
Me: "Well...the Sixers, now, I guess."

It wasn't exactly a cause for celebration, but it did feel like the fruits of a plan coming together. The Sixers had started the season 3-0, given us all a bunch of thrills and a whole lot of laughs, but now the time had come for the team to really dig in and get to work. Losing work.

We were gonna play our way to the bottom, one Evan Turner 2-15 shooting night at a time, and reap the rewards come the June draft. Evan and Spence were gonna walk, and we were gonna begin our rebuild around Rookie of the Year winner Michael Carter-Williams, as well as a healthy Nerlens Noel, two lottery picks in next year's loaded draft (including our own Top Five pick, the most important part of the equation), and possibly Thaddeus Young if he happened to survive the roster's nuclear winter. It wasn't pretty, but it was beautiful.

Now, who the hell knows. It's not like the Sixers are unexpectedly campaigning for a championship, but like I alluded to earlier, the playoffs no longer seem totally out of the question in the miserable East. You look back now and you realize that the team's 12-21 record might actually be deceptive, since when the team has both Michael Carter-Williams and Evan Turner healthy in the lineup, they're actually 11-10, and with their recent MCW-ET-Hollis-Thad-Spence starting five in tact, they're actually 6-2.

With the LBs playing like this, you then start looking at the teams around them in the East standings and wondering which, if any of them, are conclusively better than the Sixers. The Bobcats? I wouldn't be so sure. The Cavaliers? Certainly doesn't seem like it. The Knicks and the Nets? Well, if they were, they probably would've shown it by now, wouldn't they? It's a frightening exercise, to say the least.

But this isn't what you want to be hearing about right now, particularly after the other events of last night, is it? You'd probably rather I try to talk you off the ledge, to explain why this doesn't actually mean the Sixers are playoff-bound, and how even if it does, that's not the worst thing in the world, right? Well, you're in luck, because I think I can mostly do that. Consider the following:

1. The Sixers' first three wins on this road trip were wins that even a truly shitty team should have been able to pick up. They caught a sub-.500 Lakers team missing Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and their top two point guards, then a plummeting Nuggets team in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, and then a Kings team that, while improving, was still just 10-20 on the season, and in mostly the same situation as the Sixers. Taken on their own, none of these wins would have been all that surprising, and certainly none considerable as alarming.

2. The marquee win of this road trip, last night's victory over the Blazers, was the fluke win to trump all fluke wins. The Sixers' league-worse three-point defense somehow managed to hold the Blazers' league-best three-point shooting to a miserable 3-22 behind the arc, one game after Portland flirted with history by hitting 21 treys against the much-tougher Bobcats defense. The Sixers are doing a better job of guarding the three on this road trip, but it was mostly just Portland missing shots they almost always make, and if the teams played that game last night 100 times and I'd be surprised if they hold the Blazers to just three triples even once more.

Not to mention that Portland PG Damian Lillard had a chance to tie the game and send it into overtime with just seconds to go, and missed a relatively clean look at the game-tying layup. This is the same Damian Lillard that's probably hit more game-tying and go-ahead buckets in the final 30 seconds of games this season on his own than half the other teams in the league combined, and most of them on ridiculous bombs from well beyond the three-point arc. What were the odds he missed that layup? One in ten, maybe? The Sixers must have cashed in all of their 2014 karma just to get a W in that one.

3. The Sixers' improved play does not exactly scream sustainable. Thaddeus Young in particular has been on a historic tear of late, playing by far the best basketball of his career over the four-game winning streak (and even the two losses before that), now upping his averages to 27 points, nine rebounds, two assists and three steals on 55% shooting over the now seven contests since he was engulfed by trade rumors. We've never seen Thad sustain this level of production for this long before, and it's pretty hard to believe that he's simply evolved into an All-Pro-type player, seemingly overnight. Chances are, he comes back to earth sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, since that 2-15 night in Milwaukee, Evan Turner seems to have turned things around as well, averaging 23 points, seven rebounds and nearly five assists on 47% shooting in the four wins since. But we know Evan well enough to know that any hot streak of his can freeze up at a moment's notice, and it might be weeks, even months before he gives off any kind of heat again. No winning run built around the consistent success of these two players should ever last for more than a week at a time, and I'd bet this one is no exception.

Oh, and not to mention that Michael Carter-Williams endured a nasty bump on the noggin at the end of last night's win. He says he's OK, and no one on the team has used the word "concussion" yet, but knowing the Sixers' medical staff / tanking engine, I wouldn't be surprised if he sat out at least a game or two for "precautionary reasons." That might be enough to help derail the team's momentum a little, and if they lose one or two, it could be weeks before they get back on track. You never know with this team.

4. The trade deadline is still a month away. In many ways, it's in the Sixers' best interest for everyone to be playing their best ball at this time of year, and for the team to even emerge victorious in a handful of games as a result, since it flashes a message to contenders: We have good players for sale who will help you win ballgames. Evan in particular had deflated his trade value to near-negligible proportions with his and the team's crappy play earlier in December, but now that he's scoring and winning again, maybe we can convince the Timberwolves or Clippers or whoever else that he's worth dealing some future considerations for. Spence is hooping again, and of course any team would love to add Thaddeus Young to their roster when he's playing like this.

We've seen that depth is not a particular strong suit of this team, so it might not take a complete roster annihilation to reverse the team's fortunes. Really, dealing any one of these guys would have a seismic impact on the team's chances--imagine having to start Daniel Orton or Elliot Williams for the final 40+ games of the season, and what that alone would do to our chances to win nightly. The team might only be one trade away from getting right back into tanking contention.

Now, even with all that said, you might still want to hear from me that the team winning isn't such a bad thing, and that really even if the team does continue to ball and maybe scrape their way into the playoff conversation, that that's OK and that some of the fringe benefits of that winning will make up for losing out on a potential top five pick in next year's draft. You might want to hear that all of this is really for the best, and that in fact we should actually be rooting for the team to keep winning, because it'll really help the team in the long run.

Will it? I honestly don't know. There are real, tangible benefits of winning for winning's sake--for instance, if you believe reports that Thaddeus Young did request a trade based on the team's poor performance, you might think that now that they're winning a little, he might rescind his request, or at least not push it too urgently. That could be hugely beneficial for the team down the road, since if Thad continues to play anywhere near this level for the next few seasons, he could be an integral part of the next truly contending Sixers team, and we might look back in a few years and be very thankful that we didn't end up panic-trading him just to indulge his whim and assist our tanking chances.

Meanwhile, there's something to be said for building a "winning atmosphere" in Philly, establishing losing like the Sixers did for most of December as unacceptable, and letting the league know that the this team is gonna be for real sooner rather than later. The draft isn't the only avenue the Sixers will have for improving their team next year--they're also gonna have oodles of cap space going into free agency, and while it's not a stellar FA class and most of the top guns aren't realistic fits for the Ballers anyway, it never hurts to have a desirable team situation to market as a selling point. No legitimately productive veteran ever signs on to play for a known loser in a small-to-medium market without a significant overpay on the team's part, and overpaying FAs certainly doesn't seem like General Hinkie's M.O.

And in the end, even though getting the top-five pick seems to be the highest-percentage way for this team to rebuild next summer, it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even in a Worst-Case Scenario in which the team actually makes the playoffs--stupid backwards basketball--and has to give up their otherwise-protected draft pick to the Heat this summer, they could still go into next summer with the Hornets pick (likely to land around #12), a waiting-in-the-wings Nerlens Noel, an on-the-cusp-of-greatness MCW, a happy and productive Thad, plenty of other improving young talent and cap space from here to eternity. It's more future assets than a lot of other teams will have at their disposal, I can tell you that much.

There's also no telling what kind of impact it will have on the Sixers if Sam Hinkie decides to start dealing veterans just as the team starts to thrive. No one on our team wants to actually tank, and if a key player gets traded in the midst of the Ballers' best play of the season, it could mark a betrayal that is not easily forgiven by those players remaining on the roster. Think that if Evan or Spence get traded, that Thad won't demand to be the next out the door, even if we can't find a trade that lands fair value for him? If Hinkie leads us down that road, things could start getting real messy real quick.

So that's all the con side to tanking for the sake of tanking at this point in the season. The pro? Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Joel Embiid, Dante Exum and Aaron Gordon. As potentially destructive as it might be for the Sixers to take active steps towards big-scale losing, you watch some of those guys play for a game or two and it's hard not to feel like it's all probably worth it if it could result in us landing one of them. If the Sixers are gonna be legitimately good, it might be a while before we have a chance to land a player of that caliber through the draft again, and finding it elsewhere in the NBA can be pretty tricky.

It's a very tough decision, and it's one that I'm glad men smarter and more knowledgeable than myself have been tasked with making. But in the meantime, I'm still not convinced that it's time to panic. If you recall, the Sixers started off their season with an unexpected winning streak, too. Then things went wrong. And that's what happens in the NBA, especially to young, rebuilding teams: Things go wrong. Injuries. Disrupted chemistry. Unforeseen trades. For the Sixers to have a chance of making the playoffs this year, just about everything has to go right for them. That may be a possibility, but it's not a particularly large one, and I'll put my money on entropy over perfect stability in this league any day.

Let's not freak out about this just yet, then. It's not too late in the season to get a little excited over a fun Sixers win without worrying about the potential tanking consequences. There's still a ton of basketball left, and if they drafted today, the Sixers would still have a top ten pick with a decent chance of getting lucky and landing in the top three. They remain in the driver's seat for that top five pick, and even if they don't get it, their future remains unquestionably bright. It's enough to find joy in during an otherwise sobering Philly sports morning.

Best of MLB: Beltre's 2 home runs lift Rangers over A's

Best of MLB: Beltre's 2 home runs lift Rangers over A's

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Adrian Beltre hit his second home run of the game with two outs in the ninth inning, a two-run shot that rallied the Texas Rangers past the Oakland Athletics 7-6 on Monday night for their third straight win.

Beltre, who finished with four hits, had two singles in his first three at-bats before hitting a solo homer in the seventh. His game-winning drive came on the first pitch from Ryan Madson (3-4).

Until then, Texas had trailed since Danny Valencia hit a two-run homer for Oakland with two outs in the first. All 13 runs in the game were scored with two outs.

Texas turned three double plays behind starter Martin Perez, who has induced a major league-best 25 in 21 games.

Valencia also had the first of three run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that gave the A's a 5-1 lead (see full recap).

Blue Jays' Sanchez wins 10th straight decision
TORONTO  -- Aaron Sanchez pitched seven shutout innings to win his 10th consecutive decision, Kevin Pillar had three hits and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the San Diego Padres 4-2 on Monday night.

Sanchez (11-1) became the first Blue Jays pitcher to win 10 straight since Roy Halladay won 15 decisions in a row in 2003. Halladay and Roger Clemens (1998) hold the club record.

Making their first appearance in Toronto, the Padres were held scoreless until Alex Dickerson hit a two-run homer off Bo Schultz in the ninth.

Dickeerson's drive into the fifth deck extended San Diego's team-record streak of games with at least one home run to 23. The 2006 Atlanta Braves were the last National League team to homer in 23 straight games.

Roberto Osuna replaced Schultz and got two outs for his 21st save (see full recap).

Orioles top Rockies for 5th straight win
BALTIMORE -- Adam Jones scored the winning run in the 10th inning on a low throw to the plate by pitcher Jordan Lyles, and the Baltimore Orioles beat the Colorado Rockies 3-2 on Monday night for their fifth straight victory.

Jones reached on a one-out single off the third-base bag and took third on a single by Jonathan Schoop. Manny Machado followed with a comebacker to Lyles, who fumbled the ball before throwing home. Catcher Nick Hundley caught the ball near the ground and lost the handle while attempting to tag the sliding Jones.

Lyles (2-3) was charged with an error on the play.

Getting two RBIs from Jones, the Orioles climbed a season-high 18 games over .500 (58-40) and improved to 37-14 at home.

Chaz Roe (1-0) worked the 10th for the win (see full recap).

Trade candidates — especially Jeremy Hellickson — lead Phils to shutout of Marlins

Trade candidates — especially Jeremy Hellickson — lead Phils to shutout of Marlins

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jeremy Hellickson was standing in front of his locker speaking with reporters after his second strong outing in a week against the Miami Marlins when Cameron Rupp walked by an offered his take on all the trade talk surrounding the veteran pitcher.

“He’s not going anywhere,” Rupp said loud enough for everyone in the room to hear.

Hellickson laughed at his catcher’s commentary.

“I hope not,” he said.

If Hellickson really wants to stay with the Phillies and finish out this rebuilding season instead of moving to a contender for the final two months — and possibly beyond — he did himself a disservice Monday night.

He enhanced his attractiveness to potential buyers by pitching six shutout innings in the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Miami Marlins (see Instant Replay).

Hellickson, who sports a 3.65 ERA in 21 starts, needed just 70 pitches to get through the six innings. He was lifted for a pinch-hitter with runners on second and third and two outs in a scoreless game in the top of the seventh. Ryan Howard struck out, following Cody Asche and Peter Bourjos, as the Phillies whiffed on a golden scoring chance.

“I hated taking Hellickson out of the game there, but we had an opportunity to score and I had to go for it,” manager Pete Mackanin said.

“After we didn’t score, I didn’t think we had a chance to win this game. I just thought that with their bullpen we were in trouble.”

The Phillies ended up winning with a rally against Miami’s bullpen. Tommy Joseph delivered a clutch, two-out double against Fernando Rodney in the eighth to score Maikel Franco from first. That was the only run the Phillies needed. They tacked on three against the sloppy Marlins in the ninth to finish it off.

Hellickson, David Hernandez, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez then combined to allow just one base runner in three innings to finish off the Phillies’ 11th shutout of the season. That’s the most in the majors.

“Our bullpen did a great job,” Mackanin said.

Three of the four pitchers that the Phillies used in the game — Hellickson, Hernandez and Gomez — are very much available for trades. They all pitched well with a gaggle of scouts sitting behind the backstop. A number of contending clubs — the Cubs, Orioles, Giants, Rangers and Blue Jays — had scouts at the game. Pitching, starting and relief, is high on the needs list for most of those teams.

Of course, the Marlins are looking for pitching, too. They have interest in Hellickson, though it’s not clear whether he is a top target of theirs. Maybe he will become a top target after what he’s done to the Marlins in the last week. Hellickson has pitched 14 innings over two starts against the Marlins. He has given up just six hits and a run.

“Just executing,” said the pitcher, explaining his success. “In my last two games the ball has been down for the most part. I’ve just gotten a lot of easy outs. The ball's down and not missing too many spots right now.”

Hellickson will be a free agent this winter and does not appear to be in the club’s future plan. Nonetheless, he has steadfastly said he would like to remain with the club for the rest of this season. Phillies management is not opposed to keeping Hellickson. He provides veteran stability and innings to a young rotation. But management would move Hellickson for a player that has the potential to help in the future.

Trade rumors can be distracting for a player. But Hellickson, who has been dealt twice in his career, is locked in.

“It doesn't bother me,” he said. “Once I'm in this locker room — obviously you still see it on TV and stuff — my focus is on helping us win today. Now it's on to the next start. It's been like this for a few years now so it's pretty easy to go out there right now.”

Mackanin said he had no idea what will become of Hellickson’s fate. But if the pitcher stays, he won’t complain.

“At this point, I don’t want to lose him,” Mackanin said. “I wish he could stay here. He’s that solid for us. He’s been like that the whole year.”

The Phillies needed a good pitching effort to pull this one out. Their hitters struck out 13 times, left 11 men on base and went just 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position.

“We don’t show plate discipline,” Mackanin lamented. “We’re taking fastballs early in the count that are hittable pitches. If you’re going to take fastballs early in the count that are hittable pitches, you cannot swing at breaking balls in the dirt. That’s all I can say about that. We have to have more plate discipline.”

On the positive side of that, Franco and Rupp both walked three times, and Franco’s two-out walk in the eighth became the biggest run of the game on a night when Jeremy Hellickson and his status with the Phillies was the biggest storyline.

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Marlins 0

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Marlins 0

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jeremy Hellickson continued to enhance his trade value and Tommy Joseph had the big hit in the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Miami Marlins on Monday night.

Hellickson shut down the Marlins for the second time in a week. The next time he pitches, it could be for them. The Marlins are one of the teams interested in the veteran right-hander. Scouts from several other contending teams were in attendance for Hellickson’s strong outing.

Joseph’s two-out double in the top of the eighth broke a scoreless tie.

Phillies pitching held the Marlins to two hits. The Phils have 11 shutouts this season.

Starting pitching report
Hellickson pitched six scoreless innings and gave up just a hit and a walk while striking out one. He exited for a pinch-hitter after just 70 pitches. The right-hander has pitched 14 innings and allowed just one run in his last two starts, both against the Marlins. He has lowered his season ERA to 3.65.

Miami’s Jarred Cosart came up from Triple A and pitched five scoreless innings. However, he threw 92 pitches. He allowed three hits, a walk and struck out one.

Bullpen report 
Trade candidate David Hernandez pitched a strong seventh inning for the Phils, picking up the win. Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez closed it out.

Miami right-hander Kyle Barraclough came up big in the top of the seventh inning. He struck out Cody Asche, Peter Bourjos and pinch-hitter Ryan Howard with runners on second and third to preserve a 0-0 tie.

Marlins right-hander Fernando Rodney struck out the first two batters in the eighth then gave up a four-pitch walk to Maikel Franco before Joseph’s two-out double delivered the game’s first run.

Rodney took the loss.

A.J. Ramos was charged with three runs in the ninth, two unearned.

At the plate
The Phillies survived 13 strikeouts, a 1-for-9 performance with runners in scoring position and 11 men left on base to score the win.

The Phils had just six hits. Joseph had a pair of them and now has 25 RBIs in 54 games.

Cesar Hernandez gave the Phils some cushion with an RBI single in the top of the ninth. Miami’s defense fell apart after that and the Phils scored two more runs to put the game away.

Asche had a hit to break an 0-for-26 skid. Bourjos is 0 for his last 17.

Trade talk
Andres Blanco is out for six weeks so he’s no longer a trade candidate, but others are (see story).

Up next
Jerad Eickhoff (6-11, 3.98) pitches against Miami right-hander Tom Koehler (7-8, 4.42) on Tuesday night. Koehler pitched eight innings of two-run ball in beating the Phillies last week at Citizens Bank Park.