INDIANAPOLIS - It wasn't easy making the 76ers 10 games better than they were the previous season, taking a team that had been in the lottery to the playoffs and getting fired with two guaranteed seasons remaining, but Jim O'Brien found a way to do it.

There's an old saying: In Philadelphia, you're going to get it, you just don't know when. The fascinating part of O'Brien's experience was that it took only the first month of 2004-05 for O'Brien to know exactly what was coming, not to mention when.

"I just had a pretty good feeling of the lay of the land as early as December," O'Brien said before coaching the Indiana Pacers to victory over the Sixers last night.

The Sixers essentially paid him $8 million to leave, giving him the balance of the guaranteed portion of a 4-year contract. Did someone in management or ownership tell him something during that first month that told him he would be one and done?

"It's observation," he said. "Really, absolutely nothing [else]. Nobody ever said anything. It was just observation of people."

At the same time, O'Brien admittedly made no effort to take his feelings to anyone above him in the organization.

"I don't think there was anything that I was doing that I wouldn't continue to do," he said. "I was trying to build a team. I thought we were building it the way I was hired to build it, change the culture."

In a statement released yesterday via Comcast-Spectacor publicist Ike Richman, chairman Ed Snider said: "I feel this is in the past. It's really water under the bridge. We remain focused on the future of this franchise and don't want to dwell on what may or may not have happened."

O'Brien has no regrets.

"We had a team that was out of the playoffs [go] into the playoffs," he said. "I signed a huge contract, so financially it was a windfall [after getting fired], from the standpoint of being able to get a sabattical. I just had the best 2 years of my entire life. I don't regret 1 second of it . . .

"I went there with the idea - I go to every job with the idea - that I'm going to be there forever. I thought I was brought in to change the culture.

"Prior to getting there, there was a lot of nonsense going on in the paper. One of the things I said in the interview process was, I would stop that nonsense from going on, from the standpoint of public stuff, players [seen] in a negative media. It just didn't work out, I guess."

Let the record show, the Pacers love him. Let the record also show O'Brien said, "I think we really have better pieces here than any other place [I've been]."

"I like him a lot," star big man Jermaine O'Neal said, "because he reminds me of a coach when you're coming through rec league and high school, where they really care more about the person than they do the actual basketball player.

"We've had some real emotional meetings at this part of the year. As a player, I say I'd go to war for this guy any night. I think all the guys in the locker room feel that way, also."

O'Brien's style, which includes lots of freedom at the offensive end, is a major change for the holdover Pacers, who were accustomed to the slower pace and more controlling approach of Rick Carlisle. Viewed as stubborn, aloof and difficult with the Sixers, O'Brien is considered by people around the Pacers to be open, friendly, approachable and cooperative.

"He tells us the offensive end is ours, the defensive end is his," O'Neal said. "We have to play the way he wants us to play [defensively]."

O'Neal said he had no concern for whatever the problems might have been in Philadelphia.

"The group of players means everything to a coach," O'Neal said. "The acceptance from the team is something that goes under the radar in sports in general. A lot of teams won't accept the coaching style, the philosophy, demeanor. We accepted the change right away."

As for what went wrong in Philadelphia . . .

"Let's put it this way - I didn't fire myself," O'Brien said. "I would say that's a pretty safe bet. Management or people above me decided the culture that I was trying to build was not necessarily the one that they wanted to see built." *