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The 76ers are in the final stretch of the regular season with just nine games remaining.

And while they still are in contention for a playoff spot, nothing has been secured yet.

The Sixers (36-37), who host Charlotte Wednesday, barely are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Prior to Monday's games, they were 2 1/2 games behind sixth-place Indiana and seventh-place Cleveland, but just one game in front of ninth-place Orlando and 1 1/2 games in front of 10th-place New Jersey, which had won seven of its last 10 games.

Philadelphia is coming off a big 97-93 win Sunday at Boston. Guard Allen Iverson, who was playing with a strained right groin, had 38 points, nine assists and six of his team's season-high 19 steals.

With that win, they pulled within three games of the Atlantic Division-leading Celtics, which means they still have a shot to catch Boston for the division title, which would bring with it a No. 3 seed in the playoffs. The Sixers, who are 3-0 against Boston this season, hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Celtics. The Sixers' schedule over the final nine games is pretty favorable. Six of the nine games will be at home and four of the nine teams have losing records.

However, one of those games is April 17 at surging New Jersey. And the Sixers also must face Cleveland (Friday), Washington (Saturday), Boston (April 12), Miami (April 14) and Indiana (April 15). Washington and Indiana are on the road.

"We just know we have to win our basketball games," Iverson told reporters after the Boston game. "We can't worry about what the Celtics are doing, what the Nets are doing, what Orlando is doing. We've got to get our wins."

Sunday, they jumped out of the gates and led by as many as 26 points in the first quarter at Boston, looking like a much different team than the one that lost by 29 to Phoenix and by 17 to Dallas last week.

Boston, which was without star forward Antoine Walker (knee injury), pulled within three points in the second half, but was unable to pull off the comeback.

Iverson's play was a big reason for that. So was the play of Samuel Dalembert (18 points, 15 rebounds) and rookie Andre Iguodala, who had 10 points and five steals and did a nice defensive job on Boston's Paul Pierce, although he finished with 26 points.

"We executed offensively and got stops," Iverson said. "The whole key is to get stops in this league. If you can't get stops, it puts pressure on you to score every time down the floor."

The Sixers were without starting power forward Chris Webber, who missed his second game with a sprained left shoulder. Webber injured the shoulder in the second half of Wednesday's loss at Phoenix. He could return soon.

With or without Webber, the Sixers need some more wins. And to do that, they need to be more consistent.

"We had a chance to pretty much secure our position and we didn't take advantage of that," Sixers guard Aaron McKie said. "The way I see it, it's going to come down to the last week. Every game is going to count."
 

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With nine games remaining, a playoff berth and a division title still within their grasp, the 76ers already are playing with a postseason mind-set.

They have to.

The Sixers (36-37) have a one-game lead on the Orlando Magic and a 11/2-game edge on the New Jersey Nets for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth. They trail Boston by three games in the Atlantic Division standings; both teams have nine games left.

After a 97-93 win Sunday over the Celtics in Boston, coach Jim O'Brien gave the Sixers off yesterday. The 76ers return to the court tomorrow night against the expansion Charlotte Bobcats; the regular season ends April 20.

The 76ers, who have had their share of close games this season, can expect even more down the stretch.

Twenty-two Sixers games (30.1 percent) have been decided by four points or fewer or have gone into overtime. The 76ers are 13-9 in those games.

"It was a high-octane game," forward Marc Jackson said after Sunday's win. "It had a playoff feel to it."

The Celtics might require a meltdown of historic proportions to lose the division title.

But if the Sixers and Celtics finish the regular season tied, the Sixers own the tiebreaker after clinching the season series Sunday. The Sixers have swept the teams' three meetings this season; they play one final time next Tuesday.

Sunday's game was a microcosm of the Sixers' season - brilliant stretches of basketball followed by prolonged periods of ineffectiveness. The Sixers stormed to a 26-point first-quarter lead, then struggled to hold off the hard-charging Celtics, who also trailed by as many as 17 in the third period.

That maddening inconsistency has been a trademark this season for the 76ers, who also have shown resiliency in dealing with it.

If they are on their game, as they were in the first quarter Sunday, the Sixers can compete with most NBA teams. But if they are not clicking, they also are capable of losing by double figures.

To anyone.

Asked if Sunday's game showed the 76ers at their resilient best, O'Brien was quick to answer.

"We have come back from six double-digit deficits, so that takes resiliency," he said.

But of those six games, none have come in 2005. The last one was Dec. 28, when the visiting Sixers beat Portland, 111-104, after trailing by 11 points.

The 76ers flourished in the open court Sunday. During a dominant 38-13 first quarter, the Sixers had their transition game in gear, and generated several easy baskets.

But they failed to find that rhythm over the final three quarters - and nearly paid for it in one of their most important games of the season.

O'Brien and guard Allen Iverson said that the transition game never would have started up early had the Sixers not played strong defense.

"Early in the game, we just buckled down and got stops," Iverson said. "I'm happy we did, and showed we can play defense with best of them."

Despite Iverson's claim, the 76ers have not consistently played good defense all season.

Before Sunday's win, the Sixers had allowed an average of 111.3 points per game in consecutive losses to Western Conference powers Sacramento, Phoenix and Dallas, all of whom exposed the 76ers' deficiencies on the perimeter.

What the Sixers have to do is make it difficult for opponents to defend them, the way they did in Sunday's first quarter. Then they have to do it more consistently than they have all season. With nine games to go, it is time.

The Sixers hope to build on the momentum of Sunday's win against Charlotte (15-57 overall, 0-2 against the Sixers). But before chalking that up as an automatic "W," remember that one of the Atlanta Hawks' 11 victories came against the Sixers.

That is why the Sixers' postseason prognosis is no more defined today after 73 games than it was in November, when they opened the season with a win over the Celtics.
 

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Nine more games... Let's do this guys. I have faith in our team (as long as we don't lose to the Bobcats).
 
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