AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - They played without Elton Brand, their leading scorer and rebounder. They played with rookie Marreese Speights making his first start. They played with Donyell Marshall playing his first real minutes of the season.
And they pulled it off.
The 76ers pulled off a stunner, turning back the Detroit Pistons, 96-91, in the suddenly hushed Palace of Auburn Hills.
They came from 11 points down in the fourth quarter, a remarkable stretch in which Marshall scored eight points - including a big three-pointer with 35 seconds left - Andre Miller scored seven, and Lou Williams came alive for 14. They did it by hitting eight of 10 free throws in the frantic last 1:17 and by getting some key defensive leadership from Theo Ratliff.
Add it all up and they got their second victory in their last seven games, one they desperately needed. They scored 38 of the game's final 60 points.
"This was a big win for us," Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks said. "To come in here and play, especially the way we've played the last couple of games, was great. I thought that we uptempoed the game a little. We had to get back in the game and, obviously, started making some shots and defended the way we were supposed to. I just thought the way we continued to play was big for us. We didn't stop; everyone was good . . . everyone made a contribution to this game. This was a huge, huge victory."
The Pistons, who led by as many as 15 points earlier, were up, 67-58, to start the fourth quarter and increased that advantage to 69-58 on their first possession. Before last night, they were 9-0 when they led after three periods.
Pistons coach Michael Curry sounded as if he foresaw what was coming.
"The end of the third was the beginning of the last little free fall, so to speak," Curry said. "I thought throughout the game, we weren't as disciplined as we needed to be. We had wasted possessions . . . we just didn't take care of the game the way we needed to. [Toward the end of the third], I just didn't think we were locked in to what we were doing. [For] a team that's up 15 points at home, that's a bad loss."
The Sixers outscored the Pistons, 6-0, in fastbreak points and 5-0 in second-chance points in the fourth quarter.
"Everyone who came in the game made a big contribution," Cheeks said. "We never stopped."
Marshall, who joined the team as free agent in a combination role as a backup player and mentor, had appeared in only three previous games for 5, 8 and 7 minutes. He hadn't been on the court since Nov. 15 and had been listed as inactive for seven of the nine games preceding last night.
"That's what Donyell does," Cheeks said. "I didn't send him in there to defend. I think that we were struggling on the perimeter a little bit, so I tried something different to open up the defense."
Cheeks wasn't at all surprised that Marshall responded.
"He's a diligent worker, who does his work all the time," Cheeks said. "It's a little different when you get out on the court. Theo was great on the defensive end, guarding the screen and roll, making [the Pistons] put the ball on the floor."
Asked whether this was the biggest win of the young season, Cheeks said: "We needed a win. I hope this isn't going to be the biggest win. So far, yes, because we needed a win. We just put it together. The guys never gave up."
With Brand at home taking treatment for a strained right hamstring, Miller scored 19 points, Williams added 16 and Andre Iguodala 14. Speights managed eight points and six rebounds in his starting assignment.
The Pistons were led by Rip Hamilton, who had 19 points and Allen Iverson, who had 17 points and seven assists. This wasn't vintage A.I., though; he had only three points and an assist in the fourth quarter.
"Obviously, we were a little frustrated, and we let it carry over on the defensive end," Iverson said. "We stopped making shots and they started making them."
Hamilton seemed perplexed about losing the 15-point lead, saying: "It is really hard to explain. We are better than that. We are a veteran team and when you give up 38 points in the fourth quarter . . . We just have to do a better job."
Marshall entered the game late in the third quarter, but not until Cheeks asked whether he was OK to do it.
"As the game went on, I began to think I might not get in," Marshall said. "When [Cheeks] did call my name, he asked me if I was OK, and everybody started laughing. I told him I was fine and to just let me get in."
Marshall played all but 54 seconds of the final period and 13:35 overall. Ratliff played 3:21 of the fourth and 18:06 overall.
"The old heads represented," Ratliff said, laughing. "Donyell went out and did what he knows how to do."
The Sixers are asking fans to bring new, unwrapped toys to tonight's game as part of the U.S. Marines' "Toys for Tots" program. The toys will be distributed to area underprivileged children. *
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