For one night, a respite for the Sixers

Victory at last: Michael Carter-Williams (from left), Nerlens Noel, Hollis Thompson, and Henry Sims celebrate in the closing seconds of the Sixers' 123-98 victory over the Detroit Pistons at the Wells Fargo Center. More coverage in Sports, Section E.
Victory at last: Michael Carter-Williams (from left), Nerlens Noel, Hollis Thompson, and Henry Sims celebrate in the closing seconds of the Sixers' 123-98 victory over the Detroit Pistons at the Wells Fargo Center. More coverage in Sports, Section E. (MATT SLOCUM / AP)
Posted: March 31, 2014

They came in out of the South Philadelphia night, shaking the rain from their coats, filling most of the stands at the Wells Fargo Center to see the 76ers play the Detroit Pistons.

In other seasons, for other generations of fans and players, there was nothing remarkable about that. Basketball is deeply rooted in Philadelphia, and when times are good, the fans show up.

This season, however, times are not very good.

The franchise wants to get to heaven, but first it must die.

On Saturday night, on the verge of setting the record for consecutive losses in not just the NBA, but among all four major North American sports, the Sixers did something even more surprising.

They won.

The 76ers beat Detroit, 123-98, and for one night they could be something other than the punch line to a national joke. After 26 straight defeats, after 59 days without a victory, the Sixers found a team they could beat, and the fans who showed up just to rubberneck an infamous bit of history got something else instead.

The night ended with a standing ovation for the Sixers. Nearly all the current players will be gone next season, having served the same function as the anonymous space-fillers who occupy empty seats at the Oscars until the stars return. These Sixers won't have many wins to savor after being bumped aside, but they will have at least one more than most people thought.

The streak, which might have stretched to 36 games if it lasted the season, is over. They can finish off the schedule in peace now, without extending their own notoriety with each mounting loss.

"Perhaps it's good that the stigma is not attached to their names," head coach Brett Brown said. "I'm pleased with the win tonight because it validates that this group stayed together."

Under Brown this season, the Sixers have played unfailingly hard. Not well, usually, but hard. It paid off against the listless Pistons, who allowed 70 points in the opening half and trailed the Sixers by 30 points, 98-68, after three quarters.

After the game was over and the fans sent the team into the locker room with a sincere ovation, after the players had exchanged high-fives and hugged, the team is still 16-57 on the season, the second-worst record in the league.

The losing is no accident, as the new Sixers' front office methodically deconstructed the previous season's roster and rebuilt it with parts that are either inexperienced, lightly talented, or both. The end result is a team incapable of competing on a nightly basis, regardless of how hard it tries. As the team sank like a stone through the NBA standings, the odds of improving its position in the June draft improved. And that - as topsy-turvy as it is - has been the whole plan.

"[General manager] Sam Hinkie was hired in May and was extraordinarily transparent about the direction we were going to take our program," Brown said before Saturday's game. "The draft happened and an all-star was traded in Jrue Holiday. I was hired in August, and we inherited a team that was the youngest in the history of the game. On the trade deadline, we traded three of our top six players to reconfirm our position that we are here to rebuild. We admitted that losing is difficult. The pain of rebuilding is difficult, and so here we are. We're here to build something unique."

Well, they've done that. The roster is a mismatched collection of players, many of whom haven't played in the league before, and many of whom will never do so again. There are 11 players on the 15-man roster with two years of pro experience or less, six of them rookies. Among the players active for Saturday's game, Thaddeus Young and Michael Carter-Williams might be the only legitimate NBA players.

The Sixers lost nine straight games before the Feb. 20 trade deadline, when they dealt away Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and Lavoy Allen. After that, they lost 17 more to equal the consecutive-loss record shared by the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL. Now there is a brief respite, but not much more than that.

"We did win tonight . . . but nothing has changed," Brown said. "We're fully committed to seeing the plan through."

The plan has taken the Sixers through some ugly stretches, and there are more of those yet to come in the next few seasons. But for one night, after two months of unrelenting losses, there was something beautiful waiting at the end of a game.

It might not be enough for all of them, but it will have to do for now.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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