They brought the 76ers' starters through the stands again last night, on fan appreciation night, and Andre Iguodala reminded folks before the opening tip that there was more basketball left to be played next week, and they gave away fans and big screen TVs and iPods, and LeBron James dunked hard on someone's bean.

And there was the ending.

The Sixers, looking for three quarters like a team stumbling toward the playoffs, battled back from a dozen down in the fourth, with Lou Williams putting on a salary drive of incredible proportions with 12 points in the final quarter, the last two putting Philly up by 90-89 over the Cavaliers with 5.1 seconds left.

Cleveland gave the ball to James, as you'd expect, and he drove hard to the basket, as you'd expect, and Iguodala banged him, as you'd expect, and Williams bumped James, too, as you'd expect, but there was no whistle - which you didn't expect with a player of James's wattage.

James threw the ball up, and Cleveland's Devin Brown got it just as Samuel Dalembert banged into him, but the clock read 0:00, and the Sixers had won, and Andre Miller clapped his hands together at midcourt like a mad scientist who has invented a really nasty virus, and the announced sellout crowd roared, and the Sixers left the floor, and there was still a chance that they could avoid Detroit in the first round.

Except that official Greg Willard had called a foul on Dalembert.

He didn't appear to get a lot of air into the whistle when he blew it, if you know what I mean, and the officials sure seemed like they were about to leave the court until Cleveland coach Mike Brown raised the dickens, but Willard told a pool reporter afterward that he had made a call, and that's reviewable under the league's instant-replay procedure.

After looking at the tape, the refs gave Devin Brown two free throws and reset the game clock to 0.2 seconds, and Brown, to his credit, made both, and the Sixers had a heartbreaking 91-90 loss and that date with the Pistons instead of a big victory.

And if you're a Sixers fan, it's as much as you could hope for.

Forget the end result. The important thing is that a young team that looked as if it was finding the light and the heat of the impending postseason too much to take on battled back - again led by the kids, Williams and Thaddeus Young - and competed.

"I told them at the half, I'm the one that had the flu," Maurice Cheeks said afterward. "They were playing like everybody had the flu. We had to be able to go out there and make some things happen, and the last few minutes of that game, when we got down 12, we made plays."

When the anger and disappointment of losing in such unusual circumstances dissipates, it will be instructive for everyone to remember what the previous two fan appreciation nights brought us.

Two years ago, Billy King was cussing like a sailor into open microphones, irate that Chris Webber and Allen Iverson seemed to believe their participation and interaction with the fans was optional, and it told you everything you needed to know about that team.

During last year's FAN, too many fans were upset that the team had not tanked in order to have a better chance in the lottery, an attitude that was an affront to anyone who'd ever laced up a pair of anything to play anything. The prevailing feeling seemed to be that the winning the team had produced after trading Iverson in December 2006 was illusory - and certainly not worth it if it meant losing Greg Oden or Kevin Durant.

Well, that was junk then, and it's junk now.

"Last year, we were trying to find our way," Cheeks said. "For us, it was a playoff push. I know for you guys, it was not. For us, it was a playoff push. And the reason we're in the playoffs today is because of what we did last year. It's because Lou Williams played that way [last year]. This year, Thaddeus Young played that way. We have a lot to be excited for."

Indeed, the 76ers' core - Iguodala, Young, Williams, Rodney Carney, Willie Green and Jason Smith - is as good as any young group in the league (with the possible exception of Oden's Trail Blazers). Miller looks suspiciously as if he's in the prime of his career, and Dalembert has had the best season of his career.

And if they're swept by Detroit, those kids should store that pain. The same pain they no doubt feel this morning. That pain is what drives teams past .500, and to the big time.