The sprained ankle was stiff, and the bruised bone in the foot was sore, but both were manageable.

So explosive forward Thaddeus Young returned to the court last night for the Sixers, as they hosted Boston in the home finale. Young missed the previous seven games with those right foot problems. The Sixers went 2-5 without his scoring and defensive quickness.

"He's going to start tonight," coach Tony DiLeo announced with a broad smile. "Short stints. Four, 5 minutes."

That's because Young's 2-week absence left him a bit out of shape, the team thought. DiLeo was clearly relieved that his most energetic player would return to a depleted lineup, worn down by the 80 games already played this season, the seven without Young in 11 days.

It made a difference - the team was better, despite a 100-98 loss, its sixth in a row - but they didn't have Young at full strength, fully back in the flow.

They have one more chance, tonight in Cleveland. These last two games will serve as a test not only of Young's fitness and health but also of the team's ability to reintegrate him. They were 10-7 in the 17 games preceding his injury, a stretch during which he scored 20.5 points on 54.4 percent shooting.

He played almost 29 minutes, about 9 more than expected. He scored 18 points on 8-for-16 shooting.

He was a boost.

Young scored on the team's first possession, a nifty spin move that left Leon Powe off-balance as Young slung it in and drew the foul.

A bit later, Young, perhaps the team's most dangerous fast-break weapon, attracted the defense on the right wing, which allowed Andre Iguodala to hit Willie Green for an open layup.

Young then nailed a jump shot in the face of Paul Pierce (who snuffed Young's subsequent jumper try).

Young left after about 6 1/2 minutes, his team noticeably energized . . . but trailing by seven points.

He returned early in the second quarter, and, after a quiet spate, brought the crowd and the club to life. He filled the left lane on a delayed break, used a low, lefty crossover dribble to scatter three Celts and, with one step, was at the rim for a righthanded layup to tie the game at 39.

The crowd got its most raucous 2 minutes later when Young took a drop-off pass from Lou Williams and slammed it home, two-handed, to give the Sixers the lead.

There were effects seen - on the next break, Young couldn't lift off his right foot and his dunk try was blocked by the rim. He also missed two jump shots and a free throw in the final moments of the game.

"I think he did get tired on a couple of those shots at the end," DiLeo said. "He was feeling fine. He was looking good. That was the one positive to come out of tonight."

"I've got to make those shots," said Young. "I was real surprised it came back so quickly. I guess it's because I'm young."

But, in general, it was a different team from the one that lost to New Jersey, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto.

Young was the reason. He knew he could be.

After a strenuous workout Sunday in Toronto, then 30 minutes of hard scrimmaging at Monday's practice, he felt encouraged and pain-free. A regimen that included electric stimulus, hot packs, hot whirlpools and ultrasound had him positively peppy at shootaround and practice yesterday.

"It feels real good," Young said before the game.

No matter how good it feels, DiLeo said, the Sixers cannot consider Young the cure for their recent ailments. They entered last night having lost a season-high five straight games with the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference yet to play. Given their recent stagnant scoring and their uncommitted defense, 29 minutes from Young did not translate into them being fearsome.

"We're not expecting miracles from him," DiLeo said. "We want to get him back, get him integrated with the team. But we need to play good basketball."

They almost did.

Elbowed out

The Celtics played last night without shooting guard Ray Allen, who served a one-game suspension for throwing an elbow at Anderson Varejao's groin Sunday in Cleveland.

Allen fired his shot from the floor after Varejao, 6-10 and 230 pounds, flipped the 6-5, 205-pound Allen over his hip onto the floor as they battled for position during a free throw. Allen's elbow appeared to hit nothing - insert joke here - and, according to Celts coach Doc Rivers, his intent and its timing cost him last night's game more than any real harm done.

Rivers expressed his dismay at what he perceived as a trend in the league of punishing retaliators instead of instigators (there was no foul called on Varejao). Rivers, who sent Allen back to Boston before last night's game, also inserted his own joke:

"I think it was more the location of the elbow. On Easter," Rivers quipped. "He said he wasn't allowed to have his annual Easter egg hunt . . . so, he said he improvised." *