Someday the Sixers will be the other team

Someday the Sixers will be the other team

Remember that game against the Golden State Warriors earlier this season when the Philadelphia 76ers got up 20-plus in the first half, lost the lead in the third quarter and ended the game in garbage time? Transport that game across conferences and continents and you basically got a carbon copy of Thursday afternoon’s London-set "home game" loss to the Boston Celtics. 

Everything was humming in the first half. JJ Redick was coming off screens like Klay Thompson, hitting just about everything, while Ben Simmons was hitting turnaround jumpers (!!) and bullying smaller defenders. Joel Embiid wasn't even scoring — he ended the half with just six — but he was distributing, springing Redick on some killer screens, and being his usual game-changing self on the defensive end. The Celtics were ice cold, as they blew layups and committed silly turnovers. It was beautiful, and it was 100 percent never going to last. 

The best you could've really hoped for in the second half was that the Sixers would be able to at least hang around for the rest of the game once they inevitably blew their double-digit lead (which was actually already single digits this time by the break). No such luck: The C's pulled away in the fourth, and Brett Brown tapped out with about four minutes to go, with T.J. McConnell and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot shepherding the team down the stretch. 

The Sixers lost 114-102, in a game that was both much closer and not quite as close as that score implies (see game recap). They fell to 0-3 for the season against the Celtics — with a fourth game coming up in Boston next week. 

How disappointing is this? I'd peg it at somewhere between a five and six — not heartbreaking, but not negligible. Hard to get too upset about losing to a better team because they're better, and the first half was fun enough that you could hardly call the whole experience a wash. Still, the Sixers keep getting tastes of earning that one statement, signature win that end up just being referendums on all the things wrong with them: How Brown should be fired, how all our veterans suck, how the Markelle Fultz trade was a disaster. (Jayson Tatum's third-quarter explosion certainly doesn't help a ton with that last one.) The emotional swing is tough to stomach, although Sixers fans would be playing themselves if they weren't at least a little numb to games that follow this general script at this point. 

The rough part is, as previously mentioned, that the Sixers' schedule stays challenging from here: home on MLK Monday vs. Toronto, at Boston next Thursday, home next Saturday for the first of four against Milwaukee. The Sixers basically have to hope to get out of a brutal January without falling too far behind, because the rest of their schedule from there is easy enough — loaded with multiple games each against the Nets, Hornets, Hawks, Magic and Grizzlies — that they should be able to make up some ground, if they stay healthy and aren't already miles away. 

The Sixers, who fell to 19-20 with the latest loss to the Celtics, might not get back above .500 for a little while still. Nonetheless, they remain in pretty good shape for a postseason push, and Fultz could be coming back (if not necessarily with his jumper) soon. 

Someday, maybe not even that many years from now, the Sixers will be the team that gets down early, but everyone knows is coming back to lay the smackdown in majorly embarrassing fashion. In the meantime, trust the bleedin' process. 

Sixers fans have earned a loud cackle at the Lakers' expense

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Sixers fans have earned a loud cackle at the Lakers' expense

Though the methods of their rebuild process have received far less scrutiny than those of the Sixers, it's worth remembering that the Los Angeles Lakers have been bottoming out for nearly as long. The last time the Sixers made the playoffs was 2012, the Lakers last made it in 2013, their last chances of contention having limped away weeks earlier, along with Kobe's busted Achilles. In 2014, the Lakers drafted seventh while the Sixers picked third, and the three years after that, L.A. has picked second. 

The third time, L.A. jumped all the way from No. 6 in the lottery standings -- due to an unexpected late surge of Ws at season's end, after coach Luke Walton had already sent multiple vets home for the holidays -- to No. 2. Afterwards, Walton offered, "I've always believed that things work out the way they're supposed to. and we decided to play the end of the season to try to win ball games and not go into tank mode, and the Basketball Gods shined down on us for that today." This was a half-callback to earlier in the season, when Walton previously referenced the Basketball Gods and their distaste for tanking, explaining, "Philly's been there for a while. They look like they're doing pretty well right now but they're still a long way from being a true contender. I would prefer not to be stuck in the lottery for very long."

The Sixers entered this week 19-19, in line for the eighth seed of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Lakers started it 12-27, on pace to earn a fourth consecutive No. 2 overall pick at this June's draft. 

For the second straight season, Los Angeles got off to a promising-enough start -- beginning the season 8-10 with one of the league's best defenses and one of the season's most productive rookies (though not the one they picked with this year's second pick) -- and then completely fell apart. While the Sixers were fumbling their way to a 5-10 December, the Lakers went 3-11, then proceeded to lose their first three games of the New Year. They've since amassed Ws against the lowly Hawks and Kings, but despite already picking in the top ten four straight years, it certainly doesn't look like Walton's crew has any chance of getting unstuck from the lottery this year. 

It might be a couple years for them still. The Lakers have a stock of legitimately promising young players -- rookie forward Kyle Kuzma, second-year swingman Brandon Ingram, even lightning-rod point guard Lonzo Ball -- but no prospect yet on the obviously game-changing two-way level of Joel Embiid, or even Ben Simmons. They hoped to be a landing spot for LeBron James this summer, but the Lakers' on-court ineptitude has blocked them from being a legitimate player in free agency for a half-decade now, and it's hard to see The King jumping to a team still nowhere near sniffing .500 this late in his career. Other free agents like Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins may or may not be easier sells, but even if so, they're not the sort of players that fix flailing franchises overnight. 

Not to mention the media circus the Lakers are currently engulfed in, surrounding a dude not even directly involved with the team. LaVar Ball caused a press firestorm over the weekend by opining to Jeff Goodman of ESPN that Walton had "lost the team" and that his son Lonzo needed a different coach to help him realize his potential. The rest of the NBA may not be as engaged with the story, but they're likely at least slightly annoyed by its pervasiveness, and the idea of being tethered to LaVar as a part of the Lakers' future probably lurks as a real factor at this point for anyone thinking of joining L.A. in the offseason -- especially while his son continues to put up historically lousy shooting numbers and maybe not even prove worth all the trouble. 

This is all to say: The Basketball Gods do not appear to be smiling on the Los Angeles Lakers thusfar in the 2017-'18 season. And of course, I haven't even gotten to the best part of all of it: The Lakers don't even have their pick this year. It belongs to the Sixers. 

For now, anyway. Due to the Markelle Fultz pickswap trade with Boston over the summer, we give the Celtics the Lakers pick if it falls between 2-5 this season, otherwise we give them the Kings pick we got from the original pickswap deal years ago next year (unless it falls No. 1, in which case we give them our own pick). After their win against Sacramento last night, the Lakers currently sit at No. 4 in the Tanking Rankings, tied with Sacramento -- if they ended the season at No. 4, they'd have about a 29% chance of handing over the No. 6 pick to Philly, with a 12% chance of giving us the No. 1. 

There's been some debate about what the best-case scenario is for Philly of how the Lakers should end the season -- whether we're better off with L.A. winning enough to slide to No. 6 or 7, or basically losing out. I'm with Derek Bodner of the Athletic that I'd rather just have the Lakers lose as much as possible, ending up with as much as a 25 percent of handing us the No. 1 pick (under the last year of the old lottery odds, before reform flattens the possibility a little), though no chance of getting it below five. 

I think that's fine: Getting the highest odds at the game-changing No. 1 pick and taking our chances next year with an unprotected Kings pick seems higher-upside than grabbing the No. 7 pick this year and potentially hand over a top-three choice to the Celts next year. There's basically no reason to think the Kings won't just be bad forever, so I have no problem riding with them in 2019. Meanwhile, we get to continue rooting for the Lakers to lose outright, to enjoy every slip of public dysfunction, every clanked Lonzo Ball three, every sports pundit who claimed LeBron-to-L.A. as a done deal now backpedaling on their words. 

Which isn't to say the Sixers have been drama- or embarrassment-free in the '17-'18 season by any means themselves -- there are certainly a handful of teams who would be at least slightly within their rights to be cackling at us right now. But hey, we're .500, we've got a reasonable chance of postseason ball, we've got at least two of the best young players in the league, and we've got every reason to be optimistic about the immediate and near-future -- none of which the Lakers could confidently say about themselves. 

So yeah -- while the Sixers wrap up their five-day layover in between games and continents, make sure to take a second to let loose a resounding, throaty, ha-HAH! at Luke Walton and the Lakers' expense. It's what the basketball gods would want. 

Sixers fans deserved a blowout win

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Sixers fans deserved a blowout win

Nearly halfway through the NBA season, we finally got it: the win easy enough to (almost) make up for all the hard ones. The Philadelphia 76ers got out to an early lead against the Detroit Pistons in the first quarter, which grew to a sizable lead in the second, which ballooned to blowout proportions in the third, which stayed as such during a fourth quarter in which the Sixers' stars didn't play a second.

Final score: Sixers 114, Pistons 78. How sweet it is. 

And the best part? Well, the best part of owning the Pistons by 36 is always just owning the Pistons by 36 — any more of a beating and we'd require a guest solo from Eddie Van Halen at halftime — but the second-best part was that all of the starters played well. 

J.J. Redick continued his hot streak, scoring 21 on just 11 shots, with a team-high +34 for the night. Robert Covington shook off a shaky start to hit three big second-half threes to ensure that this one would be a laugher in the fourth. Dario Saric had a casually effective 11-6-3, with another solid night from deep (2 of 4). And Joel Embiid, playing against old foe Andre Drummond, anchored an ironclad Sixers D in the first half, and put up 23 and nine in just 25 minutes — seemingly scoring at will at the end of the third, just so he could be sure to get his numbers before an inevitably inactive fourth. 

But the story from this one was, of course, Ben Simmons. The Fresh Prince was dominant early in this one, hitting his first five shots on a variety of creative and aggressive moves, not exactly hitting or even testing jumpers, but expanding his repertoire to include the little push shots, floaters and bankers that Simmons needs in his arsenal to be an effective scorer without a proper working jump shot. His offensive forcefulness also opened passing opportunities that had been largely closed to him in recent games, ending with 19 and nine on 9 of 13 shooting, with a pair of blocks and steals each. It's been a while since we'd seen Ben look as intimidating as he did in the season's first month, but with the point guard averaging a 22-6-6-3-2 on 57 percent shooting over his last three, Scary Simmons appears to have returned.

And look man, we were owed a game like this. We haven't gotten a win that could accurately be described as "comfortable" since Thanksgiving. The Sixers aren't the Warriors, but they aren't go-months-without-relaxing bad, either. Eventually the Ballers were gonna break loose for a win that was never in doubt, and finally on Friday, we got to close this one out with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, James Michael McAdoo and Justin Anderson (welcome back!) hoisting triples. About friggin’ time. 

So the Sixers have won four in a row, battled back to .500, and are finally back in the playoff picture, sitting at eighth in the East with their 19-19 record. What do they earn for their achievement? Five days of rest and a ticket to London, where they'll play the Celtics next Thursday afternoon. 

Maybe not the best timing for the suddenly gelling Sixers to go most of a week without playing, but five days off to rest Joel's aching limbs — and give Markelle Fultz the practice reps to hopefully get him back in the fold shortly after the team's return Stateside — won't be the worst thing. The Sixers have righted the ship on their seemingly adrift season, but the waters stay rocky from here, with four straight against the cream of the East: Boston (twice), Toronto and Milwaukee. Then again, this is Sixers January — the month of utmost Process invincibility — so perhaps it's the rest of the East that should be fearful at the moment.