THIS IS WHY the 76ers need to take care of business over the final nine games of the season.

This is why the Sixers absolutely have to overtake the Miami Heat and gain the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Atlanta Hawks are the reason.

Get to No. 5 in the East and it means a first-round series with the Hawks - the same Hawks who the Sixers beat, 98-85, last night at the Wachovia Center; the same Hawks whom the Sixers beat in two of their three meetings this season.

Obviously, the Sixers' coaches and players have to play this thing tight to the belt. It's bad form to admit that you would rather face one team over another.

But I don't have to adhere to that rule.

Of course the Sixers want to play the Hawks.

Given a choice between the Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers (61-13), who have the best overall record in the NBA and have only lost once at home, the Orlando Magic (55-18) and the reigning NBA champion Boston Celtics (56-19), it's a no-brainer to want to take the trip to Atlanta.

The team that plays the Hawks in the 4/5 matchup has a 50/50 chance of moving on in the playoffs. At the very least, it will not require the minor miracle that will be needed to upset Cleveland, Orlando or Boston.

This is simple.

The Sixers are a combined 0-8 against Cleveland, Orlando and Boston.

Last night they beat Atlanta while playing without forward Thaddeus Young for most of the game.

Young, who had scored 20 or more points in seven consecutive games, played less than 10 minutes before leaving the game with a sprained right ankle.

The Sixers got 16 points off the bench from rookie Marreese Speights, and, more importantly, they played sound defense and forced the Hawks into 17 turnovers.

Leading 80-79 with just under 8 1/2 minutes remaining, the Sixers closed with an 18-6 run, and the defense held Atlanta without a field goal during that stretch.

"Well, that was an important win for us tonight," Sixers coach Tony DiLeo said. "Playing at home, playing against Atlanta, a team we're trying to catch, playing maybe against the team we're going to play in the playoffs, that was definitely an important game for us.

"I really like how the team picked it up especially after [Young] was injured."

What I like about the Sixers' demeanor now as opposed to this time a year ago is that this team is not satisfied with just making the playoffs.

They had come into the game having lost consecutive games to Charlotte and Detroit, yielding 100 points to offensively challenged teams that had ranked 29th and 28th, respectively, in scoring. The Hawks aren't a great offensive team, but they were scoring 98.1 points a game.

Defense is as much about effort as it is about ability, and when you've surrendered 100 points in six of the previous seven games, a desire check is needed.

Atlanta had climbed back from a 16-point deficit in the third quarter to get to within one point.

"When they were making their run at us, I was saying to the guys, 'What are we made of?' '' Sixers forward Andre Iguodala said. "This is a situation we have been in so many times this year."

At this time of year, extended losing streaks can mean the difference in moving up or down the playoff seeding. Since losing four straight games coming out of the All-Star break, the Sixers have not lost more than two in a row in their last 18 games.

With nine games remaining, it would be extremely difficult for the Sixers (38-35) to make up the four-game deficit to Atlanta (43-32), but they trail the Miami Heat (39-35) by just a one-half game for the fifth seed in the East.

The latest critical stretch begins tomorrow against the Milwaukee Bucks (32-43) at the Wachovia Center, followed by Detroit (36-38), at New Jersey (30-44), at Charlotte (34-40) and at Chicago (36-40).

That's five games against teams with losing records before they face Cleveland.

Miami's next five games are at Dallas, Charlotte and Washington, at home with New Orleans, and at Boston.

Considering the Sixers finished the season with two games against Cleveland and one each with Toronto and Boston, the next five games present an opportunity to get some breathing room they may end up needing.

"It was a nice lead game for us to have," Sixers guard Willie Green said. "Tonight was a good test for us playing against a team we might hopefully see in the playoffs.

"You definitely want to get these wins and get in [the Hawks'] heads that it's going to be a battle. Right now we are focusing on getting as many wins as possible coming down with the last nine." *

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