THE 76ERS knew they had to reach high last night. To win, even to make a stand, they had to rise to what could be considered the current pinnacle of the NBA. Whatever case they had, they had to make it against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that has not just been beating opponents, but overwhelming them.

The Sixers have spent the early portion of the NBA season desperately seeking themselves. They didn't find out much last night, other than that the conventional thinking that Andre Iguodala is better suited as a small forward than as a shooting guard has more than some merit.

Iguodala made his first start of the season in the frontcourt of what became a 101-93 loss to the Cavs. That came about when coach Maurice Cheeks decided to start Willie Green at shooting guard and use Thaddeus Young off the bench. The idea was to keep Iguodala and Young as fresh as possible to try and defend James, the league's No. 2 scorer and one of its two best players.

James didn't dominate the way he has in many games, but he still finished with a game-high 29 points. Iguodala had a season-high 27 points, plus nine rebounds and five assists, but neither Green nor Young were able to generate anything. Green had two points on 1-for-6 shooting in 20:02, while Young had six points on 2-for-9 shooting in 27:22. Iguodala and Andre Miller (22 points) combined for 16 field goals in the first half, but just two after intermission.

If Iguodala's performance was even a slight ray of hope, so was the work of Lou Williams, who put up 13 of his 22 points in the final period.

The bad news was Elton Brand returning after a two-game absence because of a strained right hamstring and managing six points, 10 rebounds and a game-high seven turnovers in 35:02. Brand, who signed as a heralded free agent in the summer, was booed several times by the announced Wachovia Center crowd of 15,550.

When it was over, the Sixers had their fifth straight loss at home and their seventh overall loss in nine games.

"I'm not 100 percent, but you do what you can to help the team win," Brand said.

The Sixerse made it a bit of a fight down the stretch, but hardly enough to ever place themselves in position to win, trailing by as many as 21 points.

That's what happens when you are within two points (48-46) at halftime and get outscored, 18-3, to start the third quarter.

"I talked to our guys about this, that there's always a point in the game where there's some separation that usually allows a team to win," Cheeks said. "I thought the third quarter was obviously the separation. Coming back on the court, down two points, and then, I think at the 9-minute mark we're down 11 points . . . It's always a separation point that we have to eliminate to get over the hump to win games. We just have to do a better job of it."

Iguodala said, "The third quarter killed us."

This was the first of the Cavs' 10 straight wins that didn't come by at least 12 points.

"Obviously, both teams didn't have their best game," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "That happens sometimes. It's good for us, off a back-to-back to come into somebody's building knowing that we did not play our best basketball and still win.

"This is kind of like a playoff series. [The Sixers] will make some adjustments [for tomorrow night's rematch in Cleveland] and we'll make some adjustments and we'll raise it up again."

James, already the Cavs' all-time scoring leader after just 412 games, came in averaging 26.7 points after Tuesday night's 114-94 wipeout of the Toronto Raptors. In that game, he also became the team's career leader in steals.

"It's always tough in this league to come off a back-to-back, especially with a running team like [the Sixers]," James said. "It's just the mindset that we have that we want to come out every night no matter [who the opponent is]. We just try to win. Tonight, we took care of business."

James is the fulcrum around which the Cavs, the Eastern Conference's most improved team at 19-3, have emerged as a winning machine. They have won 18 of 19, the best start in their history. The Cavs are one victory shy of matching the franchise record of 11 straight victories, set in 1988-89.

Never mind all the speculation and consternation over whether James would be leaving for New York as a free agent in the summer of 2010, Cheeks had a deep appreciation for what his team was facing.

"I don't know much about that [free-agency] situation," Cheeks said the other day. "I just know we have our hands full, and then we have them again [tomorrow]."

Asked where James ranks in the pantheon of greatness, Cheeks first focused on the current players and said "top two," a clear reference to the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant. Beyond that . . .

"To me, Michael [Jordan] is like the best, and then there are other people after that," Cheeks said. "Like these young guys say, 'That was then, this is now.' There are always different players who, in their era, are very, very good, just like when I was playing. There are always comparisons . . . there are always circumstances that allow this player to be better than a player years ago."

Circumstances, of course, include championships. Jordan won six. James has been to the Finals once, but would seem to have opportunities to be there again.

"You think of Chicago, Jordan and Scottie [Pippen] were the main players, and [the Bulls] replaced all these other players and still won," Cheeks said. "When [Jordan came back after retiring], they won. He was a phenomenal player. LeBron's a phenomenal player. In his time, he's probably going to win his fair share." *

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