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.

Flyers-Penguins 5 things: Different teams meet outdoors at Heinz Field

Flyers-Penguins 5 things: Different teams meet outdoors at Heinz Field

Flyers (28-25-7) at Penguins (37-14-8)
8 p.m. on NBC, CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

It’s time for some outdoor fun.

The anticipated Flyers-Penguins Stadium Series game has arrived, as the two rivals clash Saturday night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Let’s get you ready for it all with five things to know.

1. Eye on the ice
The one caveat of playing ice hockey outdoors is, of course, the weather.

The forecast is calling for rain showers from morning until noon with temperatures in the low-to-mid 50s. The precipitation is expected to taper off and temperatures are expected to dip into the high-30s for puck drop.

The ice can still be playable with some rain. Both teams are expected to have their morning skates indoors. No matter what, the game ice will certainly be a bit different than playing in a concealed arena.

“I'm sure they will do the best they can to have it ready,” Michael Del Zotto said this week (see story). “Unless it is really cold, the ice is always going to be chippy playing outdoors.

“It doesn’t matter what the ice conditions are because both teams are playing with it. It’s not an advantage or disadvantage for either team. Both have to deal with it.”

Ultimately, players are ready for anything weather-wise -- with the wind being just as big of a concern as the ice (see story).

2. Two directions
The Flyers and Penguins are in contrasting spots.

Pittsburgh is built for another Cup run.

The Flyers are not yet. Instead, they are fighting simply for their postseason lives.

The orange and black have lost seven of their last 10 games. Since the 10-game winning streak, they are 9-15-4 with the NHL’s second-fewest points at 22.

When the Flyers won 10 straight, they had a plus-14 goal differential over that span. In the 28 games since, they have scored an NHL-low 48 markers and own a minus-36 goal differential.

So, like last season, the Flyers have a mighty mountain to climb for a playoff berth (see story). They are now five points back of the Islanders, who currently hold the second wild-card spot with 68 points. The Flyers, at 63 points, also trail the Bruins (68) and Panthers (66), while the Sabres (62) and Lighting (62) are right there in the mix.

Meanwhile, the defending champion Penguins are third in the NHL with 82 points and first with 3.47 goals per game, spearheaded by Sidney Crosby’s league-best 33 scores.

3. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Brayden Schenn is on a three-game goal streak and ranks No. 1 in hockey with 14 man-advantage tallies. Since Jan. 8, he is tied with Wayne Simmonds for the Flyers’ lead in goals at eight. He also owns eight goals and eight assists in 23 career games against Pittsburgh.

Penguins: Right winger Patric Hornqvist, who plays alongside Crosby, was super active in the first meeting with the Flyers, recording two assists, five shots on goal, three hits and three blocked shots. The 30-year-old has 17 goals, 18 assists and a plus-19 rating, while the Penguins are 12-3-0 when he scores a goal.

4. This and that
• Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth is making his sixth straight start and ninth in the last 10 games. He is 2-2-2 with a 2.23 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and two shutouts in seven lifetime matchups with Pittsburgh.

• Penguins goalie Matt Murray is 5-1-2 in his last eight games with a .940 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average. In two career games (one start) against the Flyers, the 22-year-old is 1-0-0 and has stopped 39 of 41 shots faced.

• Pittsburgh has won four of the last five meetings with the Flyers. This is Game 2 of the four-game regular-season series between the teams. The Penguins won the first matchup, 5-4, on Oct. 29 at the Wells Fargo Center.

• Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz (upper body) and Kris Letang (upper body) will be game-time decisions. Schultz is a team-best plus-31 on the season, while Letang is a two-time All-Star.

• Jakub Voracek has 32 points (15 goals, 17 assists) in 29 career games against Pittsburgh.

5. The rivalry
Relive some great moments from the Flyers-Penguins rivalry with these terrific pieces from CSN’s Orange Line.

Danny Briere recalls brawl in Pittsburgh

The origin of Philly’s hatred for Crosby

Reliving Flyers’ five-overtime playoff win

Mario Lemieux returns to form in first game back

Top Flyers-Penguins moments

Another wild-card run? Flyers need it to start outdoors

Another wild-card run? Flyers need it to start outdoors

PITTSBURGH -- At this point, the Flyers are sick of talking about Saturday night's Stadium Series outdoor game against the Penguins at Heinz Field.

They just want to get it on and get it over with. Too much buildup.

“Yeah, kind of,” Simmonds said Friday. “For us, this is an extremely important game. We’ve got to get all the points we can possibly get going down the stretch if we want to make the playoffs.

“Obviously, it’s going to be an exciting time. A lot of guys have families here. But we have to stay focused on the goal.”

To say the Flyers need points right now is a huge understatement. They are five points behind the New York Islanders for the Eastern Conference's final wild-card spot.

That’s the farthest they have been behind since occupying the wild card on Dec. 4. When the Flyers won their 10th consecutive game Dec. 14, they were 14 points ahead of the Islanders.

That’s a 19-point swing in the standings since then.

“So, we just have to find a way to get two points and get some wins in a row here,” Jakub Voracek said. “Every game against Pittsburgh is special. Playing an outdoor game -- I don't know how many people are going to be here -- but it's going to be a great experience.

“For us, every game is a huge game. So, if you play Pittsburgh or Colorado, it doesn't matter. You have to get two points.”

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Friday night he believes his team can still make a playoff run and salvage a wild card.

The thing is, when the Flyers made their second-half push last season, it actually began in mid-February -- earlier than now.

A couple players got hot, as did Michal Neuvirth and then Steve Mason, and you could see momentum building in the team over weeks.

That hasn’t been the case here. It’s almost March and the Flyers are floundering, no one is scoring and they are losing games despite playing pretty good hockey with no answer on how to turn things around without a major scoring increase across the board.

“It's a different season,” Voracek said of the comparison. “Different teams. You could use it as an advantage. … We have to play our hockey. The last two games, we went 1-1, but we played pretty good. We have to be ready [Saturday].”

Hextall said what happens this weekend and Tuesday against Colorado will have a trickle-down effect on what he does Wednesday at the NHL trade deadline (see story).

“We’ve played well enough at times this year that we can mount a run,” Hextall said. “I have no doubt in my mind. We’ve been playing pretty good the last eight, nine games. Except for the Edmonton game.

“But we haven’t gotten results. We need to get results. It’s not about moral victories or playing good against Washington. That’s fine and dandy, but not good enough. We have to win games.”

It starts tonight.