HOUSTON - For the first time all season, the 76ers find themselves in the middle of a four-game winning streak. The bench is providing a tremendous spark, Elton Brand is performing like the player he was signed to be, and though trade rumors still swirl, the team is playing some of its best basketball.

Oh, yeah. And they've done it largely without Allen Iverson, who has missed the past three games while tending to the health of his daughter.

Saturday night in Houston, the bench again provided a much-needed lift after the Sixers dug themselves a 13-point hole en route to a 102-95 win over the Rockets. The win improved the Sixers to 19-31.

"We're trying to establish the bench situation and it seems like we're doing that somewhat," said coach Eddie Jordan after Saturday's win. "Hopefully we can be consistent with it."

In Friday night's win in New Orleans, starter-turned-sub Thaddeus Young had a terrific game, posting 19 points, making eight of nine shots. He collected 17 more Saturday. More than the point totals, he was a whirl on the court, seemingly quicker and faster than he's been all season.

"He's figured it out," Jordan said of Young. "You can try too hard in a sense. Just go out, have fun, and play and use your skill level and don't worry about mistakes. I thought he was worrying about a missed shot here, a missed rotation there, or if somebody scored on him it bothered him. But you just can't worry about that."

Young has figured it out to a degree, nine games into coming off the bench.

"I'm just going out there and trying to play and help my teammates in every aspect of the game," Young said. "Going out there the last few games I've just been like 'Get it, leave it all out there on the court.' And when you get back in do the same thing.

"Now I'm to the point where it's like, 'OK, this is how it's going to be so just accept it and just go, just play.' I've been doing it [subbing] for so many games now, I'm getting used to it and getting acclimated to the whole situation. That's what I should have done at first, just get out and play, not get down on myself about anything."

Jordan has also gotten strong performances of late from swingman Rodney Carney, who scored 13 points on Friday and eight on Saturday.

"I see Rodney as our most dependable athlete," Jordan said. "He runs the floor, he catches and finishes at the rim. I told our team, here and there, your speed can be intimidating to the other team - your speed on defense, your speed on offense. And Rodney is the No. 1 athlete on the wing. Catch it finish it, those types of things stun the opponent, whether it's a dunk or a quick finish. The three-point shooting - we want him to shoot the three, no doubt about it."

The second unit, consisting lately of Young, Lou Williams, Carney, Marreese Speights and Royal Ivey, has been key during this streak. Friday, they were instrumental in expanding the lead in the second quarter, and Saturday played a big hand in erasing a 13-point Rocket lead.

"You try to play the way your team shows you how to play, and those guys like to get out," said Jordan of his second unit. "Obviously Thad at 4 [power forward] and Carney at 3 [small forward] and Lou pushing the ball and Royal in there generating the defense and getting some steals. Even though there were some breakdowns on defense [against the Hornets], they missed layups and they dropped the ball out of bounds. Maybe it's because of the energy and all the confusion the defense causes. I'd like to get better defensively with that group. But that's how we're gonna get out and play."

The team hosts the Minnesota Timberwolves tomorrow and travels to Toronto on Wednesday, the last game before the All-Star break. Tomorrow could also mark the return of Iverson, who will be a starter in the backcourt for the Eastern Conference in Sunday's All-Star Game in Dallas.

But what to do with Iverson? Almost certainly, Jordan will reinsert him as a starter for Willie Green. But Green has been great in his starting role. He has shot 15-for-25 (60 percent) and averaged 14 points in the three games he has filled in for Iverson.

"I don't know that we're learning something about him," Jordan said of the team playing without Iverson. "We're just trying to find a way to play and generate what we have to do - good defense, quality possessions offensively."

Maybe Iverson's return will make the team even better. Or maybe it will mess with what has become a good mixture lately.

No matter, Iverson's return almost certainly will diminish Ivey's role. He played a total of 20 minutes the past two wins.

"I've been in this situation before; it's not the first time," Ivey said. "It's just preparing yourself mentally and being ready whenever your number is called. I have no idea [what will happen when Iverson returns]. That's the upper management and coach's decision. I'm just here to support my teammates and support whatever the decision is."

Six shots

Former Rocket and Sixer Moses Malone sat courtside on Saturday and was a visitor in the Sixers' locker room after the game. He had the players howling after he walked in and said to Marreese Speights, "Hey, Speights. You don't like passing the ball much, do you?" . . . Houston's Kyle Lowry, a Villanova product, turned his right ankle on Willie Green's foot during a fastbreak and will be lost for at least a week. Lowry scored 14 points in 19 minutes Saturday . . . The team didn't get into Philly until close to 4 a.m. yesterday after flying in from Houston due to the snow accumulation.