WASHINGTON - It's possible that, if the 76ers' situation were a little more stable, if they were a little more grounded in exactly what they're trying to do at both ends of the court, rookie Marreese Speights might well be playing himself into a role as the starting center.

But not now. Not yet. The Sixers, suddenly riding a three-game winning streak, have had more than their share of change in the course of a dramatic week. Tony DiLeo stepped from the front office as the coaching successor to the fired Maurice Cheeks; Elton Brand went down with a dislocated right shoulder; Thaddeus Young stepped seamlessly into the power forward role he played late last season; and Lou Williams miraculously rediscovered his explosive game.

Save Speights for later, if at all. He was an animated, effective force off the bench last night, contributing eight of his season-high 17 points in the fourth quarter of the 109-103 victory over the Washington Wizards.

"He's been working hard all year," veteran backup Theo Ratliff said. "He's a great listener, and it's showing in his play. He's very confident. He thinks every shot he takes is going in, and he's not scared to take them. He's playing with a lot of discipline, takes his time in the post. Usually, rookies don't have that."

The three-headed center probably remains the best way to go, even with Samuel Dalembert struggling mightily as the starter. Dalembert was on the court for only 11 minutes, 53 seconds in this one, and even when he tried to make a defensive contribution, it backfired, as he was called for three goaltending violations in a 4:48 stretch of the third quarter.

Enter Ratliff, who anchored the defense with four blocks and three rebounds in 16:41, and Speights, who was on the court for 10:06 of the final period. DiLeo indicated that, given matchups on a particular night, he could start Speights at power forward, but not at center. Why, he seemed to say, mess with what's working? His logic seems twofold: Speights' confidence is rising in his current role, and over the course of the long season, it remains important to find a way to ignite Dalembert.

"Sam's an important part of the team," said DiLeo, now 3-0 as Sixers' coach. "He's had some great games for us, including 17 rebounds against Washington [in DiLeo's debut]. We need to see how he goes."

Speights isn't the only one breaking out under DiLeo. Williams, who matched his career high with 25 points in Wednesday night's victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, took a step past that with 26 last night, knocking down 10 of 17 shots from the floor, including four of eight three-pointers.

"I think [backup forward] Donyell Marshall called it," Williams said. "Before I was even in the game, every shot these guys made, I was screaming and hollering, just very animated. He asked me, 'What's gotten into you?' I said, 'I don't know, I just feel good right now.' "

Without Brand, they are once more a band on the run, understanding that creating havoc in the form of steals and fastbreak opportunities is their best - only? - real chance to win.

"When you take away a guy of that caliber [Brand], you try and create havoc," Williams said. "It has to be a team effort when a guy like that goes down. That's what we usually try to do, try to get as many turnovers as we can. Everybody knows we're a running team, and in order to do that, we've got to create havoc and create turnovers."

They showed that in glimpses earlier in the season. The glimpses are expanding. They gave away 10 points on turnovers in the first quarter, shot 56.8 percent in the first half and were down, 57-56, going into the third period. The fourth quarter, though, was theirs. Despite shooting just 6-for-17, they scored 10 points off seven Wizards turnovers, scored six points on the break and allowed none. The Wizards had one field goal in the final 5:11.

"The fourth quarter was some of the best basketball we've played all year," Young said. Without Brand, he said: "The difference is, we played with a low-post presence most of the season. Tonight, we didn't have that. We ran and ran and ran, looked to get out in transition, and we executed our halfcourt plays. That got us the game."

DiLeo saw the resiliency that became a trademark late last season. He also saw defense that he liked in the fourth quarter and balanced scoring over four quarters. They went from giving up 14 points on eight turnovers in the first half to giving up only four points on five turnovers in the second half.

That the first four opponents of his tenure - Washington twice, Milwaukee and Indiana tonight in the Wachovia Center - are a combined 25-53 matters little.

"A win," the new Sixers coach said, "is always good, no matter who it is [against]." *

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