CHICAGO - In two of three games since Thaddeus Young exited the lineup with a right ankle sprain, the 76ers have appeared offensively challenged.

Gone was a potent attack: quick transition game, solid half-court options, strong production.

In its place in the last two games - both losses - was a disjointed, seemingly forced effort in which too often the wrong player seemed to be taking the wrong shot at the wrong time.

Going into tonight's game against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center, the Sixers are 40-37, have lost two straight to sub-.500 teams, and are losing the battle for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers are sixth, trailing the Miami Heat by a half-game.

Chicago is in the seventh spot, but leading the Detroit Pistons by a half-game.

The Sixers practiced yesterday at the Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago. Young was there, but did only light jogging and shooting. Young did not travel with the team to its two previous road games, Sunday in New Jersey and Tuesday in Charlotte.

"When you see your team down, you want to be out there and helping them on the court," Young said of watching his struggling team on TV. "But I can't do that just yet."

Young injured the ankle nine days ago. He was given a two-to-three-week recovery timetable. Yesterday he said the ankle was "getting stronger and stronger."

"I'm encouraged," said Sixers coach Tony DiLeo. "Everything's going as planned. He's shooting the ball and moving better and better."

Before Tuesday's game, DiLeo said he believed Young was "right on track," without being more specific.

"The most important thing is to not rush him," Andre Iguodala said. "We have to finish the [regular] season strong and have him 100 percent for the playoffs."

Young is averaging 15.2 points per game.

"We've clinched our spot in the playoffs," Young said. "I'm anxious to be out there, but we all have to look at the big picture. For the playoffs, we need to have everybody healthy and ready to go."

DiLeo said Young's absence has been a difficult blow for the team.

"We're trying to compensate for that, but that's not an excuse," DiLeo said. "Injuries happen. We feel we have guys on this team that can pick up some of the scoring slack, like Marreese Speights and Lou Williams."

Tonight, the Sixers will need offense from both of those guys, along with leading scorers Iguodala and point guard Andre Miller.

The Bulls have not yet clinched a playoff spot. They have won seven of their previous 10 games and played very well at home since February, when they traded for guard John Salmons and center Brad Miller.

"We need to get back on track," DiLeo said. "It's a very important game for both teams. I think it'll be like a playoff atmosphere."