Elton Brand played his worst game as a 76er, but it turns out he had a good excuse.

The big-ticket free-agent forward looked like he was trying to run on stilts in last night's 114-102 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at the Wachovia Center, scoring a season-low three points (on 1-for-7 shooting) and grabbing five rebounds in a desultory 25 minutes, 29 seconds. Coach Maurice Cheeks sat Brand down with 4:49 left in the third quarter, with the Sixers down by only nine points, and he did not return.

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After the game, Brand was examined by team physician Dr. Jack McPhilemy, who announced that he had suffered a strained right hamstring. Brand will be re-evaluated today, but his status for tomorrow's game against the Detroit Pistons in Auburn Hills, Mich., is undetermined.

The loss of Brand for any amount of time - or even a reduced level of his effectiveness - no doubt would have a detrimental effect on an 8-11 team still trying to find some sort of rhythm after losing for the fifth time in six games.

To quote Yogi Berra, it's getting late early for a team that was supposed to rise to the level of a serious contender in the Eastern Conference with the addition of Brand.

"It's a long season, but it's moving pretty fast," Sixers guard Willie Green said of what can only be construed as a disappointing opening to a season of much higher expectations. "But we'd rather start slow and finish strong than the other way around."'

It probably didn't help the Sixers that they were playing for the second time in as many nights, having won in overtime at Chicago on Tuesday. It also probably didn't help that the Lakers (15-2) were coming off a 118-117 loss to Indiana, which served as a reminder that they might not be quite as invincible as they were beginning to believe they were.

But regardless of their motivation, the Lakers are always a threat as long as Kobe Bryant is healthy, on the court and, well, being himself.

The Lower Merion High graduate received the customary boos the first few times he touched the ball, but Bryant apparently is not considered the villain now that Allen Iverson no longer is with the Sixers and available to challenge him in those compelling games-within-a-game. Several dozen spectators in the crowd of 19,119 - the Sixers' largest crowd of the season, by more than 3,000 - were decked out in Bryant jerseys.

Bryant didn't disappoint his fans. Despite the best defensive efforts of Andre Iguodala, Kobe went off for a game-high 32 points, shooting 12-for-20. And, at times, he made it look easy.

"I was a little more aggressive when going to the basket," said Bryant, who said he was so upset by the loss to Indiana that he did not go for a cheesesteak and drive around the old neighborhood, which he normally does when returning. "[Tuesday] night, I had a couple of good looks that I settled for as opposed to attacking the rim.

"Sometimes you get the calls, sometimes you don't. Tonight, I thought there was some contact and didn't get the call, but I got the luck of the bounce and the ball went in a couple of times."

Everyone should be so lucky, because there aren't many as talented as the Lakers' resident superstar. In fact, with the possible exception of Cleveland's LeBron James, there isn't anyone in the NBA today operating on his level.

"If Kobe shoots the ball that well, we're going to have a good winning percentage because he's going to take most of the shots," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson.

The Sixers bolted to an early lead and were up, 17-7, when point guard Andre Miller curled in a reverse layup with 7:34 remaining in the first quarter. But the Lakers promptly went on a 24-6 run and never looked back.

Miller, who can score but is most effective when playing the role of facilitator, was obliged to look for his own shot in the early going as none of his teammates stepped forward with a hot hand.

After Samuel Dalembert sank one of two free throws to cut the Lakers' advantage to 63-58, Kobe and friends went on another run, scoring 20 of the next 26 points to take an 83-64 lead in the final minute of the third quarter.

With Brand on the bench, Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks went with a smaller lineup that chipped away at the double-digit disadvantage, but never seriously threatened the visitors.

"It was a tough team that we played tonight," Cheeks said. "They are fueled by Kobe Bryant, but they are also fueled by their defense. They kept us off of our offensive sets and kept us running up and down the floor. Their game is like two games, starters and their bench. The bench usually plays the big part on the defensive end."

In addition to Bryant, the Lakers got strong efforts from 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who combined for 40 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots.

Every Sixers starter scored in double figures, with the exception of Brand. Miller had 26 points, Iguodala 19, Thaddeus Young 17 and Dalembert 11. Lou Williams came off the bench to score 15. *